My Week in Movies: September 10, '11

Steven Soderbergh, 2011
I am typically hard-pressed to unearth through-lines among Soderbergh's eclectic works, but fresh off "The Informant!" I find the talent-loaded "Contagion" to be, more or less, a serious version of that near-farcical 2009 stroke of brilliance (also penned by no-nonsense scribe Scott Burns). We are behind the scenes of the propagating chaos, following - through what could be labeled vignettes - the protocols of the CDC much the way we followed those of the FBI, with a dash or two of familiar scandal. Plenty of jargon flies over our heads but what's more important are the core concepts and subtexts. Quietly accentuated are everyday actions innocently spreading harm and, subsequently, the rampant fear thankfully left unrealized in our recent outbreak of H1N1. Alighted on is a kinship between viruses and internet trends such as "top tweets". While many audience members will surely be left wondering twixt their snores where all the computer effects and Matt Damon-versus-infected-monkeys scenes are ("I thought 'Contagion' - pronounced with a hard 'g' - was the name of a distant planet; what was up with the poster of Damon in a space suit!?"), the expectedly muted tone, methodical pacing and quarantine-tight script drive those prepared through an engrossing experience that will make you second-guess handshakes for weeks. Listen to further thoughts on Episode 20 of Reel Time.

Cop Land
James Mangold, 1997
Word on the street is right - Mangold actually has made one genuinely good film! I typically enjoy criticizing the jobber (along with Marc Forster, from whom he is indeterminable) for his decisively safe filmmaking that has produced such beleagueringly harmless pictures as "Kate & Leopold", "Identity", "Walk the Line" and "Knight & Day", none of which I out-and-out loathe but none of which leave any impression beyond some inherent sentimentality, if that. Mangold is a reliable bet for big studios to cash in on innocuous scripts with. It's also probably a reliable bet that his status as such was garnered via his auteured "Cop Land", which has proven to me a captivating ride through the intrigue of corrupt internal affairs. The remarkable ensemble cast led by one of my favorites, Sylvester Stallone in a meek turn, certainly doesn't hurt.

Burning Palms
Christopher Landon, 2010
There's more to this anthology than first meets the eye. Its five tales of paranoia tap in to oft-lascivious horrors of the everyday, entertaining for their sardonicism and provocative for their ambiguity over who the real victims are, with segues clearly inspired by "Creepshow". Only one of these five is a stinker, and four out of five ain't bad. Rosamund Pike graces the screen as she can never do enough in the involving "Green-Eyed Monster", Jamie Chung goes where no actor has gone before in the humorously relatable "Little Piggy" and a very Jim Caviezel-looking Anson Mount is winningly believable as a flamboyant and misguided adoptive father in "Buyer's Remorse", all before Zoë Saldaña steals the show as a rape victim with an unprecedentedly sadistic revenge plot in the appropriately darker finale, "Maneater". Screenshots after the jump.

Out of Sight
Steven Soderbergh, 1998
Perhaps I typed too soon regarding my sense for Soderbergh's through-lines. Seeing three of the director's films in close succession (bringing my total viewed to 11, that is if you include the Yes concert) while attempting to mind stylistic similarities has shown me that while, yes, Sodie is indeed marked by his unpredictability, he can be recognized through certain medium-wide interior compositions (equally favoring both floor and ceiling, actors often in the frame's lower half), focus on relatively less mainstream facets of definitively accessible material, pacing that doesn't dawdle in the least yet refrains from being too in-your-face and a preference for massive casts of name actors. "Out of Sight" is arguably middling but deftly entertains throughout with a subtle wit and sexy textures. Listen to further thoughts on Episode 20 of Reel Time.

The Incredible Melting Man
William Sachs, 1977
'50s sci-fi meets the late '70s slasher, with strong twinges of mortal existentialism? From its opening ten minutes, we can only hope "The Incredible Melting Man" - following an astronaut returned from a mission-gone-awry in Saturn's rings as he, explicitly aware of his impending doom, violently yet introspectively wanders through his past - keeps up the screaming awesomeness of its hospital escape sequence. Lucky for us, it only gets better as the delectably splattered cheese multiplies with every scene, taking pit stops to beauteously ponder its morose anti-hero's post-traumatic dilemma - a morbidly despondent decay of glory symbolized in the man's titular melting.

Bobby Miller, 2010
Short films are tricky. How do you distribute your short without compromising its potential in the process? As I've come to learn through experience, not only do you have to resist over-thinking matters throughout the various stages of production, you have to seriously weigh all your limited options between online distribution (which may not be legally possible depending on certain contracts in union cases) and festivals that will actually accept you (likewise). According to this /film article, wherein one can also view the film in its 12-minute entirety, Bobby Miller took similar steps to bring his project to fruition as my team did ours, so in spite of our effort's failure I at least know we seem to have been on the right path. "Tub" itself is as though Lynch's "Eraserhead" and Svankmajer's "Otesánek" mutually masturbated in the shower and somehow spawned a voguish baby. The jaunty piece is quite literally jaw-dropping, and emotionally stimulating to boot.

Joe Wright, 2011
An adolescent female borne of technology and raised through nature combats her own repressed nature on a mission against technology. Did I get that right? It's about all the story I could find behind the visual reliance of the emptily cyclical "Hanna", apart from the axial character's naked origins marauding as something secreted away before the finish (a finish which might have become more interesting had it opted for proverbial turned leaves and the running theme of a longing for a childhood as opposed to further bitter violence). This isn't too detrimental a quality, however, considering Wright's consistently pummeling, Chemical Brothers-assisted aesthetic with a penchant for magic hour. Sequences involving dynamic lighting, bold camera movements and, in certain cases, fascinating tracking shots, don't just steal the show, they are the show. Screenshots after the jump.

Further first-time viewings:

The Adjustment Bureau - George Nolfi, 2011
Though the bureaucratic take on guardian angels is ludicrously finite and flooded with arbitrary nonsensicalities (that I can hope function more smoothly in the great Philip K. Dick's source novella), "The Adjustment Bureau" charms its way above all that with a consistent streak of levity and Matt Damon's infectious smile. John Toll's captivating cinematography is the standout, which seems appropriate as the decorated DP also shot my beloved "Vanilla Sky", a film this one seems to take more than a few notes from. If anything, the piece just confirms what many of us already knew - Linus Roache controls our fates.

Your Highness - David Gordon Green, 2011
Ha, okay, so this is a reedy amalgam of the decided histrionics of "The Lord of the Rings", the sprightly camaraderie of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the novel adventure of any swords-and-sandals/sorcery outing from Harryhausen's grandiose "Clash of the Titans" to the kitschy "Gor", with all the absurdity of Demy's "Donkey Skin", perversity of Henson's "Labyrinth" and wyrdness of Polanski's "Macbeth". Though, yes, rife with hit-or-miss era-bending gags (that involve narcotics much less than expected), the humor stems primarily from what appears parodic exaggeration before we realize, oh, this is just like any other epic quest film - and actually captures the allures of "questing", in the sense many contemporary online gamers know it, better than most - it's just that in this case we have been granted open permission to laugh at/with its ridiculous theatrics.

Precious - Lee Daniels, 2009
It's the opposite of subtle, but a winning main characterization carries "Precious" through to its potent climax with ease.

Mary - Abel Ferrara, 2005
The imaginarily dramatized press tour for "The Passion of the Christ"? Matthew Modine and Forest Whitaker are fantastic, as per standard. This redundant piece is interesting enough but never quite comes together, leaving me without much to say.

Less Than Zero - Marek Kanievska, 1987
On top of the young Downey, Jr.-ness, James Spader and Andrew McCarthy are always a treat. The trio brings this monotonous "drugs are bad" film to passable watchability.

Count Yorga, Vampire - Bob Kelijan, 1970
AKA "The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire". With essentially the same - though not as well accomplished - formula as Hammer's iconic "Dracula" and personal favorite American International's "Blacula", "Yorga" brings moderate dose of fun and a visceral fright or two amidst its overall stagnation. After a sequel, Kelijan went on to helm the worthy "Scream, Blacula, Scream", co-starring Pam Grier.

Fright Night - Craig Gillespie, 2011
Director of the shockingly not horrendous (thanks in large part to Susan, not to mention her talented Sarandons) "Mr. Woodcock" Craig Gillespie's "Fright Night" remake is, also, not horrendous, though it suffers in a general fashion through being nothing more nor less than, well, a "Fright Night" remake. And that's no slight against Tom Holland's original, which has garnered a considerable cult following since its 1985 release, but more an observation of that forerunner's winning blend of class and kitsch, spooks and sex that casts an inescapable shadow over this remixing. As though someone has placed the ingredients of Holland's film - both itself and its imprints - in a bingo ball draw, such is this new incarnation and thus may lay a key reason for my lukewarm response. Read the full review.

Bullets Over Broadway - Woody Allen, 1994
Irritating. Rigid. Irritatingly rigid. Given, this is perhaps the point, but still. I'll take "Hollywood Ending" for my Woody work about Woody working, even if in direct comparison that one suffers a severe Jim Broadbent deficit.

The Boy with Green Hair - Joseph Losey, 1948
"Please don't tell why his hair turned green," infamously declares the William Castle-esque poster of this scantly comedic and absolutely white-bred social examination with an oddly conveyed political message. I almost want to make a "Family Guy" reference here, disobeying the pleading tagline and saving you two long, boobless hours (well, okay, the movie's only 80 minutes) but a finite reasoning behind the preposterously society-rattling hue shift is never actually spelled out. There is a slight focus on environmentalism, so let's just say his hair turned green as a gift from Mother Nature so he could be better recognized when speaking out (directly into camera) against war.

The Beast with a Million Eyes - David Kramarsky, 1955
Think "Giant from the Unknown", then replace the unintended humor with barefaced lameness. I guess, according to IMDb, anyway, Roger Corman is an uncredited director on this.

Total: 17

Rewatches (3): Labyrinth (Henson, 1986), Paul (Mottola, 2011), Watchmen (Snyder, 2009)
- Unlike another childhood favorite, "The Dark Crystal", which seems to prosper with each revisit, "Labyrinth" is very on again, off again with me. Sometimes I only to find myself totally alienated by its utter and unrelenting battiness; sometimes I am absorbed and mesmerized. This time was perhaps the most positive viewing yet. Henson unchained!
- In terms of 2011's reverence to late '70s, early '80s extraterrestrial cinema, "Paul" (initially reviewed for Icon Magazine upon its March release) may have a leg up on "Super 8", if only thanks to the latter's now notoriously mediocre third act. Of course this candidate for the title of Ultimate Fanboy Film is chocked full of direct references to "E.T.", "Close Encounters", "Back to the Future", "Alien", etcetera, etcetera... hell, its very existence is a legacy of that wave's infamy... but man, how did I miss all those "Star Wars" references the first time 'round? I mean, sure, you've got an Ewok and Leia's bounty hunter get-up, but there's also the cantina song, the "Boring conversation, anyway" utterance... ba-bow. Overall, not simply referentially, "Paul" has got a little bit of everything.
- Who watches the "Watchmen"? Okay, that's way too cliché, but indeed I did, for a fourth time. I checked out the Blu-Ray's "Maximum Movie Mode", which turned out to be quite the disappointment. Snyder himself hardly intervenes with comment (or, more accurately, interferes with picture-in-picture), the film/comic comparisons aren't brought up enough and the their world/our world parallels are almost all uselessly random and lacking in correlation. All else would have been suitably viewed as a separate special feature. It's almost an interesting experiment but it's not exploited to its fullest - basically, there's nothing truly "Maximum" about it - and would have been better off as your standard director's commentary. Neatest thing I did learn, though: the nuke Veidt is shown overseeing the construction of is named "S.Q.U.I.D.". As for the actual film, or at least what of it I was actually watching as opposed to glimpsing in the background behind a talking head interview or time lapse set construction, while Dr. Manhattan is without question the most interesting aspect of any "Watchmen" incarnation, in film form the best bit, in my opinion, is the sex scene between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II - the perfect culmination of their intertwining psyches. I also still totally dig the "All Along the Watchtower" sequence, though admittedly it has a new aftertaste to it now that I've seen how insubstantially overboard Snyder went with similar uses of music in this year's "Sucker Punch".