5.31.2011

My Month in Review: May '11

Kick-Ass
Matthew Vaughn, 2010
Surprises are nice. I never thought I'd like "Kick-Ass", or for that matter find it a kinetic force of emotion with clever layers of controversy. In what appears a blast on the MPAA, the film is arguably geared toward the "PG-13" crowd while portraying said crowd in disquieted hard-"R" fashion. Like Vaughn's "Stardust" adaptation, it's a gradual build to an unrelenting finish that takes its time to generate varying moods and atmospheres. At one point it'll feel like a hang-out movie, at others a glorified snuff video, transitioning between these easily and energetically. Much of the comic book source material's aesthetic is captured while its narrative flow is vastly improved upon. And the cast? Out of the park, man! Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz are of particularly enthusiastic note, while it's always fun to see Michael Rispoli and Jason Flemyng, among others. Upon first viewing I had a few issues (initially I found the narration and supporting characters to be weak and unnecessary while blacks and homosexuals were heedlessly given a raw deal) most of which paved themselves over and then some on a solid rewatch. Also, greatest use of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Ha, maybe so!

The Final Comedown
Oscar Williams, 1972
Billy Dee (whose Billy Dee Williams Enterprises co-produced) plays Johnny Johnson, an embodiment of the conflicted yet determined nature of late 1960s, early '70s black militants after hundreds of years of their race's oppression. Openly addressed are the acceptance and self-loathe many brothers and sisters were subconsciously taught through white media. Though I've yet to see director Oscar Williams' '78 "Death Drug", I'm ready to call "The Final Comedown" (based upon Jimmy Garrett's play "We Own the Night") Williams' most important film. Reviewed as part of The Corrierino's "Three Honkies the Hard Way". View the full entry.

Confessions of a Superhero
Matthew Ogens, 2007
Hey, two movies about ordinary folks dressing up like superheroes in one month! This thoroughly and uniquely affecting look in to an intricately odd slice of American humanity is obviously, however, quite a different beast from "Kick-Ass". Somewhat tangentially, I tend to take admiration to fully realized visions of filmic endeavors I've attempted myself and considering the two documentaries I worked on in 2007, "Confessions", technically, is just that (not to say either of my meager pieces are or could be close to becoming superior). It is a source of encouragement to keep on trucking, though an ironic one as, subjectively, it depicts sympathetic hopefuls willingly - almost blindly - trapped in a hopeless hamster wheel.

Truck Turner
Jonathan Kaplan, 1974
Without a single dull moment, "Truck Turner" is a perfectly paced, highly energetic wad of baadasssssery with a chemical supporting cast thoroughly humorous in their uptight characterizations. Even the love interest's pet cat has impeccable comic timing. The story, more or less about Truck taking out pushers so fly they could have saved Pan-Am, doesn't come spoon-fed or in a particularly formulaic manner. The cinematography coolly cuts between careful composition and guerilla-style handheld as Hayes' score echoes "Shaft" while defining itself in its own right. Reviewed as part of The Corrierino's "Three Honkies the Hard Way". View the full entry.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Ivan Dixon, 1973
An uncompromising look inside American race conflicts of the early 1970s with the controversial power of a black Project Mayhem, if you will (makes me wonder if Chuck Palahniuk is a Sam Greenlee fan, as "Spook" is from Greenlee's eponymous novel). Engaging from the onset, the slow burn never loses steam, and isn't likely to long after the credits have passed.

Poets of Mongolia
Peter Brosens, Peter Krüger & Sakhya Byamba, 1999
Brosens' "State of Dogs" and "Khadak" paint bleak portraits indeed, but their views of urban Mongolian culture and decay still, to my crazy self, anyway, mock the country up with great allure. Here, vignettes, their subjects' reverberating songs embedded in their realities, reveal a hopeless working class filled with dreams left unrealized due to outside circumstance (alternatively explored in "City of the Steppes", covered below). Next to the aforementioned titles "Poets of Mongolia" is a less intricate effort from Brosens, but no less an engrossing one. Since finally following up on my highly memorable 2007 "Khadak" viewing the guy has quickly become one of my favorite filmmakers.

Abar
Frank Packard, 1977
AKA "Abar: (The First) Black Superman". Wow, this one's a doozy. The ending is screwier than the "Oh Happy Day" finale to "The Thing With Two Heads" and preaches that the answer is not equality through morality but the strange karmic consequence of eating worms for being a racist. Now, at no point during "Abar" was I bored, or anything but enthralled, for that matter. Yes, ostensibly it is a bad film, but it's one of the best bad films I've seen. Reviewed as part of The Corrierino's "Three Honkies the Hard Way". View the full entry.

Bedazzled
Stanley Donen, 1967
Through frequent use of extreme foreground framing and obscuration on Donen's part and casual subtlety on that of stars Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, who also conceived of and wrote the script, we are allowed to discover, as opposed to be spoon-fed, the sharp comedy (and is it ever sharp), making it all the more satisfying.


Further viewings:

Classified X - Mark Daniels, 1998
An edifying rundown of blacks' history in American cinema from the insidiest of insiders, the one and only Melvin Van Peebles. A technical masterwork it is not - not by any means - but it is, far more importantly, an authentically felt personal reaction to racism in film as though an extension of Spike Lee's montage finale to "Bamboozled" (which, granted, came a year or two later).

City of the Steppes - Peter Brosens & Odo Halflants, 1993
The pain of purge and repression still felt decades after de-Stalinization, Mongolia carries forth as it can in this oft-dreary (though encouragingly endcapped) compilation of profiles of life in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Brosens' most intriguing idea, one he would expound upon in subsequent films, highlights posed life as though breathing photographs - a wayfarer's tableau vivant, if you will. Of note is the apparent musical influence from Western culture, I.E. Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and John Lennon's ever-fitting "Imagine". I'd like to learn more about the "Eagle Dance" performed by wrestlers pre-bout, as I've now seen the tradition in this, Brosens' "State of Dogs" and particularly memorably in the 1945 epic "Tsogt Taij" (my guess as to its significance is simple: golden eagles are mighty hunters with powerful, raptor-like claws - "raptor" coming from the Latin "rapere" meaning "to grip" - and the grappler dance emulates this to embolden and intimidate). Finally, I hope, outside future viewings of this picture (and even then I might just cover my eyes), I never have to see a lamb-skinning again. That was brutal.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Howard Hawks, 1953
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are awfully funny in this shockingly racy pastiche of upper class ethics. Monroe is fabulous in the centerpiece number, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend".

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Rob Marshall, 2011
So releasing the heathen god Calypso from her imprisonment in the oddly sultry (save for those teeth) human form of Tia Dalma doesn't appear to have untamed the seas but in fact brought the misfortune of Rob Marshall upon our pirates and their Caribbean (and beyond, from Britain to Florida, as it were). "On Stranger Tides" is the "Mighty Joe Young" to the "King Kong" that was Gore Verbinski's one-two knockout of "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End" (my initial thoughts on which you can read here, where in retrospect I didn't award them enough favor, with expanded reactions - including one for "The Curse of the Black Pearl" - readable just below in this month's rewatch section). What made those predecessors great, in a (pea)nutshell, is that they weren't satisfied to merely deliver a reliable Disney product - they had the ambition, like their free-spirited characters, to go where no blockbuster had gone before and do it better than most could hope to in the future. Still, I concede that more Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa isn't exactly a horrible thing. Read the full review.

Jane Eyre - Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2011
Where "Jane Eyre" frequently looks nice, particularly with its exteriors, it just as frequently plays like an episode of "Masterpiece Theater: Porn for Women", though having not been previously familiar with the story allowed me to become freshly interested in the social struggle between human nature and rigid class structures then especially wrapped up in the romance that lifts above that struggle. Mia Wasikowska capably leads the cast that also boasts Judi Dench's matronly comic relief and the impeccable jawline of Michael Fassbender, who plays not only the sole man Jane ever really forms any kind of acquaintance with but also, almost humorously, just about the manliest man she can begin to imagine.

The Way Back - Peter Weir, 2010
As expected - good with a few overt blemishes and, of course, Colin Farrell!

Empire Records - Allan Moyle, 1995
It's rocky going, but if you've ever worshipped at the altars of John Hughes, Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith there's plenty to like in this day-in-the-life ensemble picture about a pre-Napster record store featuring Liv Tyler's hotness zenith, Renée Zellweger before she became intolerable, Ethan Embry at his tweakiest, a welcome appearance from Debi Mazar, a really bad Rory Cochrane haircut and a cool little montage to perhaps Dire Straits' greatest single, "Romeo & Juliet". I should probably get around to Moyle's often-recommended "Pump Up the Volume".

Bridesmaids - Paul Feig, 2011
Now, it would be entirely unfair to judge this or any film based on what it could have been with an alternate direction, but I can't help but feel an opportunity for endearingly raunchy gal-pal fun was wasted in favor of this "Apatow for chicks" outing. Still, the centerpiece cast - even its minor supporters - deliver to their respective, self-set standards and better, standouts being Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm, Franklyn Ajaye and Maya Rudolph. I'll throw Chris O'Dowd in there as well, because although he's not given much to work with here I love him on Channel 4's "The IT Crowd" and it's great to see him getting somewhat more prolific face time (I didn't recognize him in his blind, mustachioed fencer bit part in the stateside take on "Dinner for Schmucks"). To the credit of wide appeal, I can give "Bridesmaids" the distinction of being the only comedy I've heard make its audience match the roaring laughter that shook my auditorium when Steve Carrell blib-blabbed the news in "Bruce Almighty" (thanks to a scene in which... well... if you've seen it, you know). Speaking of Carrell, director Paul Feig has helmed many an episode of America's "The Office" and wouldn't you know it, former Dunder Mifflin CFO David Wallace himself, Andy Buckley, was also in this... but... as... an extra? Maybe he had scenes that got cut... or maybe he was just there for moral support?

Maciste contro i Mongoli (Maciste Conquers the Mongols- Domenico Paolella, 1963
AKA "Hercules Against the Mongols". Yep, Maciste just isn't marketable in the states, it would seem, even when you've got the not-quite-Herculean (or at least not-quite-Steve Reeves/Reg Park-ian) Mark Forest reprising the part, here for the fifth of seven times. Each Maciste film (and Ursus film, for that matter) is dubbed and retitled to make him either a more widely recognizable mythological muscleman - often Hercules - or a more widely recognizable mythological muscleman's son - often Hercules'. This outing, comfortable in its wild historical inaccuracies as "One Million Years B.C." is in its blend of prehistoric epochs, is middle-of-the-road for its wave. It treads a line twixt the sufficient entertainment of, say, "Le fatiche di Ercole", and the flavorless insipidity of something like "Teseo contro il minotauro", never quite falling to either side while, in true pepla fashion, lacking the would-be inevitable showdown(s) between its central adversaries in favor of brawls with lions and somewhat larger scale skirmishes.

Death at a Funeral - Neil LaBute, 2010
For what it's worth, this is probably on par with Frank Oz' original, if not slightly more entertaining (and containing of perhaps the strangest Wilhelm scream use I've heard). Tangentially, I may well have a new celebrity crush on my hands in Zoe Saldana. Bring on "Colombiana"! In the meantime, I suppose I should finally get around to LaBute's more reputed "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors". I've seen "Lakeview Terrace", which is a finely effective pot boiler, and "Nurse Betty", which is... uh... well, it's "Nurse Betty", at any rate.

The Princess & the Frog - Ron Clements & John Musker, 2009
So is the only reason "Song of the South" is widely considered racist because it is set on a plantation (my specific thoughts on that matter here)? We go in to "The Princess & the Frog" knowing all the hype about Disney's first black heroine (which is a bigger deal than they might even make it out to be, as our past two decades of non-white princesses I.E. Jasmine and Mulan have come across just as any other "Snow White" archetype of the company) to find her living as stereotypically as a black person in a very racially stereotypical 1920s New Orleans might. Do I really take issue with this? Nah. It's characterization, just as it was in "Song of the South". So, basically, I see "The Princess & the Frog" as further evidence to back up my claim that "Song" isn't actually racist. Now if only we could have a black heroine who didn't have to spend most of the runtime as an amphibian. As for the film itself, well, my two key observations are that first, there are way too many computers involved with cel animation these days and it takes away all the charm and second, regardless of that, even in a weaker outing after more than a decade since their last worthy effort Disney still knows how to tug on the ol' heartstrings. The melodramatic opening act, for reasons I couldn't quite pinpoint, had me all emotional-like. Things go way downhill when our practically motive-less but totally terrifying-to-young-eyes villain stirs up his spells and there begins a seasoning of random, instantly forgettable songs with garnishes of Disney Renaissance references, but those introductory bits made me want to sit through it all to at least find out what happens in the end.

Sweetgrass - Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009
Anyone who knows me knows I love the Big Sky country. Unfortunately I'm not sure "Sweetgrass" really cuts my Montana mustard, though it does try in the admirable fashion of Davaa Byambasüren's Mongolian docudramas and, to be fair, on a base level does provide a glimpse into the lives of some of our "last cowboys".

Wet Hot American Summer - David Wain, 2001
This production from the Stella team brings intermittent laughs with its parodic exaggerations, but is carried out amateurishly enough to spoil under its hot summer sun.

That Man Bolt - Henry Levin & David Lowell Rich, 1973
Boiled down, title character Jefferson Bolt is the black James Bond, a charming mother with an affinity for hi jump kicks and a knack for getting out of traps and enduring torture. His best "gadget" is his mean attitude, which he frequently launches in the droopy faces of his staunch, British bosses who do condescendingly and obligatorily rib him for his blackness. The character has little to no reason or backing from his surrounding, unengaging picture, the only technically interesting aspect of which is the repeated use of a certain editing technique that I believe was somewhat forward for its time. Reviewed as part of The Corrierino's "Three Honkies the Hard Way". View the full entry.

Slaughter - Jack Starrett, 1972
With a purposeful neglect of story beyond the basics of "Rip Torn and Rip Torn's friends are trying to kill Jim Brown and Jim Brown's friends", 1972's "Slaughter" almost goes to show that with enough soulful funk and righteous attitude you don't need so bothersome an element as a story to give the post-"Sweetback", post-"Shaft" crowds what they craved. Once, however, the energy surge has worn from the capturing opening title sequence (accompanied by Billy Preston's title theme, also heard in brief more recently in the oddly punctuative Hugo Stiglitz interlude of "Inglourious Basterds"), we realize just how little there is to "Slaughter" and we begin, rapidly, to grow bored. Reviewed as part of The Corrierino's "Three Honkies the Hard Way". View the full entry.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated - Kirby Dick, 2006
Though sloppily produced as many of these documentaries on film business tend to be, this one is more interesting and informative than many of its brethren. Yeah, down with the MPAA!

Thor - Kenneth Branagh, 2011
For all it lifts from Oliver Stone's "Alexander" with its establishing chapter in a Babylonian Asgard (including but most definitely not limited to a similar opening narration from Anthony Hopkins), "Thor" neglects all clues regarding effective pacing, causing its few better moments throughout - moments typically involving Tom Hiddleston's sympathetic, honorably intentioned Loki and/or Idris Elba's stoic Heimdall (though a certain Avenger's brief first appearance goes not without notice) - to drown in what is, quite frankly, a loud and boring affair with all the camp of "Conan the Destroyer" and more questionable Dutch angles than you can shake a mythical hammer at. This portrayal presents the Norse thunder god as a right cocky bastard, and just like the Greek demigod Perseus in last year's abominable "Clash of the Titans" remake, he is rewarded by his omnipotent father for not learning a thing over the course of what passes as his arc and remaining a right cocky bastard though tones and posturing would have us believe otherwise. Our script is one of many conveniences and, when we are on Earth in particular, one of many clichés - a script about as thin as the paper it's written on. Pity, I wanted to like this one and very much enjoyed its trailer. Oh, also, really, people need to quit saying "this is madness" in movies. Takes you right out of it. "Oh, also" number two: if "Iron Man" gets Black Sabbath (on top of a slew of AC/DC), what gives with the lack of KISS' anthemic "God of Thunder" here? The theme "Thor" offers up instead, Foo Fighters' "Learning to Walk Again", is wretched.

Identity Crisis - Melvin Van Peebles, 1989
Written by and starring Van Peebles' son Mario, "Identity Crisis" is a crazy mess, but a mess feeling enough like a fun father/son bonding experience that it manages to be watchable at least.

Micmacs - Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009
Characteristically inventive and kitschy (often irritatingly so) but uglier and less interesting than most Jeunet, and that's saying something.

White Material - Claire Denis, 2009
Just as I did from my first glimpse at Catherine Breillat with "The Last Mistress" (though vastly moreso here), I got a very "IFC's Amateur Hour" feel from my first Denis with the director's much-lauded "White Material". Obligatory shake-cam plus quietude does not provocation create. Insert sighs and onlooker anger here, I suppose. Sorry.

The Drawn Together Movie: The Movie! - Greg Franklin, 2010
A censorship lift renews some of the ultra-meta "Drawn Together" cleverness but can't restore the gang to what they were in the typically hilarious seasons 1-3. And I'm not so sure their bitter lambaste of "South Park" is either justified or all that concrete.




















Total first-time viewings: 29

Rewatches (12 total): Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End x2 (Verbinski, 2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest x3 (Verbinski, 2006), Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010), Confessions of a Superhero (Ogens, 2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl x2 (Verbinski, 2003), Classified X (Daniels, 1998), Rock-A-Doodle (Bluth & Goldman, 1991), Valhalla Rising (Refn, 2009)

If "Dead Man's Chest" impresses me and makes me realize this whole Disney pirate thing can be damn swell after all (and then some, of course), its concluding piece does a few better to render me a giddy "Pirates of the Caribbean" fanboy. "At World's End" is a true triumph of blockbuster adventure, heartily engaging from stem to stern. It is all parts intense drama, ambitious surrealism, honor of freedom in a dangerously beautiful world, deserved fanservice and guileless self-parody sewed up tight by a provocatively intricate yet seamlessly woven story with the enhanced Davy Jones lore strong at its core. This is what escapist filmmaking is all about.
- Where "The Curse of the Black Pearl" primarily makes merry with an amusement park ride, the first half of its considerably prettier sequel couple, "Dead Man's Chest", takes the play on pirate lore to new levels with the brilliance of Davy Jones' cephalopodan personification and its extensions. With the advantage of the stage already having been set for better or for worse, "Chest" also broadens its high adventure scope to massively entertaining effect, providing greater a sandbox for its well-blocked characters to romp about in. And I'm not one to be swept off by computer effects, but the crew of the Flying Dutchman are phenomenally accomplished. Verbinski appears to know better than most of his epic peers how to show the use of every last penny of a multi-hundred-million dollar budget. The care that goes in to even the minutest details in the briefest shots is literally awesome.
- Would you believe this was my sixth viewing of the respectably subgenre-resurrecting "Curse of the Black Pearl"? Well, approximately. I haven't been keeping track quite that closely. I loathed the flick with my initial theatrical viewing but returned repeatedly on borrowed home video, desperate to determine what I was missing that everyone else was going nuts about. Turns out I'm still not wild about it, though this revisit - my first after finally giving the sequels the ol' college try and coming out enamored - proved worthy at least of sitting through, particularly for the many little set-ups that get paid off and then some in what was to come. Overarching positives exist, such an ever-reliable "Three Musketeers" tone, yet the key negatives I originally cited are still glaringly apparent - dreadfully weak British Navy characters (perhaps intentionally so to increase the rascally allure of piracy but bland enough to take away from as much) and cheap and childish theatrics throughout (including an extreme overuse of and over-emphasis on the term "pirate") - but I can now appreciate the rare and glorious high seas adventure, particularly considering its admirable narrative structuring and thickly peppered iconicity (Jack Sparrow's would-be big entrance at the forefront). The picture would be little without Johnny Depp or Geoffrey Rush, though I'm finding myself oddly impressed with Orlando Bloom as well. Where previously I thought him more wooden than ever here (I might mention quite liking him in "Elizabethtown", however), this time I find myself taken by his overwrought posturing - he performs as though a silent film swashbuckler, which fits the part just fine. If anything, hey, Zoe Saldana! Hottt. With three Ts.
- Hadn't seen "Rock-A-Doodle" since probably before I was in double-digits. In those childhood days I frequently watched it and others of its ilk a la "All Dogs Go to Heaven", "The Brave Little Toaster" and "An American Tail" (along with the more typical Disney fare), and it was a major source of pseudo-trauma. The Christopher Plummer-voiced owl villain recalls the butt-judge from "The Wall" and is thrice as scary, while the entire film is grounded in terrifying scenarios and visuals. Even the cheerier moments are creepy, what with certain odd sensibilities in place and the strange, seemingly inconsistent size relation of the characters to one another. The narrative is haphazardly tossed but this hardly affects matters.
- Considering how much I loved "Valhalla Rising" on my first go, it was strange to find it floundering upon a much-delayed rewatch. Maybe it grew to something (even) greater in my mind as I reflected over these past six months (and oh, there was reflecting)? I'll chalk it up as a mishap and try again some other time - it wasn't a complete "180" of perception, just a dismaying underwhelm-nosity.

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