My Week in Movies: October 1, '11

Gosford Park
Robert Altman, 2001
The early 20th Century clash of upper and lower social classes is perfect fodder for an Altman picture, and "Gosford Park" plays like an interactive murder mystery dinner theater in which we are characters, too, wandering about a grand estate twixt "upstairs" and "downstairs" party members - none of whom seem to actually be enjoying themselves as opposed to simply going through the motions - gathering passing information as we can to help eventually determine who did it in the study with the candlestick. The perseverance to maintain a hierarchy humorously interferes with the proper mystery solving, though many seem to have valid motives and no detail is spared. Our minds are drawn to certain characters of the massive cast in particular, with the scant time afforded to each beneficial in keeping these individuals provocatively mysterious. So, yeah, that "Gosford Park"? Mighty good stuff, to say the least. Listen to further thoughts on episode 23 of Reel Time.

Irma Vep
Olivier Assayas, 1996
A real filmlover's treat, this dreamily long take-loaded piece feels like the most probing behind-the-scenes documentary ever made. The storied production's blatant fiction lends much to the illusion of authenticity surrounding all else, bringing greater intrigue to sequences of dissident character research, relationships formed around a crew's varying reactions to - including the compulsory pedestalization of - a controlled performer in insulated proximity, and comparisons and correlations between so-called intellectually elitist pictures and artlessly pedestrian explosion fests. A courageous honesty comes from lead Maggie Cheung's portrayal of none other than herself, made central subject to all the mentioned corollaries to cinema stardom.

Red State
Kevin Smith, 2011
Rattling to the point that your core will quiver, your sweat will pour and chills will run over your goosebumps' goosebumps, particularly when it appears to be heading down an unquestionably startling path that threatens unflinchingly to alter its entire playing field. Honestly, while the epilogical path instead taken is sensibly smooth, befitting of the film's platform and cathartically rewarding through a punctuative exclamation, it is of considerable disappointment the originally scripted finale was not realized - or at the very least alluded to sans a rational "dumb luck" explanation - as it is so alarmingly built up to. All told, "Red State" is Kevin Smith's excellent return to form; or, more felicitously, his return to deserved artistic prolificity via a whole new form. Read the full review as part of Horrorthon '11: All the Colours of a Blood-Soaked Screen Part II.

Meek's Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt, 2010
Examinations of isolated peoples living off the land with heedless determination in alluringly enlightening contrast to my own life of granted convenience often make for some of the most fascinating filmic experiences, and the establishing stretch of the thoroughly gorgeous spectre that is "Meek's Cutoff" is not much different. Simply looking on from Reichardt's effective spectator vantage is both beautiful and haunting as the characters - only recognizable as actors in costumes as opposed to genuine westward caravaners due to their familiar faces - cross streams, endure thirst, moreover navigating and disappearing in to unforgivingly alien and ominously ghostly landscapes so gorgeous and illuminating they're practically magical. In this illimitable, rarely rivaled capacity the film is far and away at its best, even if it doesn't match the nearly indescribable introspective male aura of Reichardt's prior "Old Joy". As the story grows more detailed, also does it create a defined cone through which we view the proceedings, making plotted less of what could be abstractly more, but our desert travel meditation remains uninterrupted until its consummately sensible conclusion. Screenshots after the jump.

The American
Anton Corbijn, 2010
Many, maybe most prominently Robert McKee (look no further than the rewatch segment below to determine why his name is fresh on my mind), assuredly declare that so long as you provide "an ending that keeps people talking", you're all set. "The American" goes to show that, sometimes, the same holds true for beginnings. Without its frameless opening sequence, the film would feel like staring at a wall for 100 minutes, albeit a wall adorned with a fair helping of pretty pictures. That wonderfully snow-covered sequence educates us to be on edge about every passerby, to keep a sharp eye around every corner... and that no friendly acquaintances are even remotely safe - an island our cold-as-ice main character must try to remain, with every word from his mouth and every glance from his eyes carefully selected and critical to both job competence and survival. That said, the film can be somewhat of a frustrating experience as before long we realize it's heading toward the predicted resolution with its only subtext seeming to be, "At least this is better than "Control", right?" Still, the standard story manages to thoroughly engage on a sheer entertainment level thanks to Corbijn's unique approach.

Observe & Report
Jody Hill, 2009
The best mainstream mall comedy since "Mallrats"? Should I add more qualifiers? Either way, those who insist "Observe & Report" is a mis-marketed stroke of darkness unfairly cast off by the popular film community are absolutely correct. I was never quite sure whether to chuckle or simply be horrified by the disturbing portrait of arrested delusion in the vein of but certainly superior to writer/director Jody Hill's 2006 debut, "The Foot Fist Way". Honestly, the picture - while painting a bitterly relatable idea of contemporary shopping complex culture - is somewhat of a structural mess, but this is watchably glossed over by its rhythmic maneuvering via score and soundtrack, the latter being predominantly of under-heard Queen. Though the (backhanded) compliment doesn't say much, considering, the lead role here may well be the qualitative pinnacle of Seth Rogen's career to date, outside the lisping actor's recent voice work on "Paul".

Further first-time viewings:

Pina - Wim Wenders, 2011
Inexplicably at first, six truckloads of tender soil are spilled on a stage and smoothed into a perfect square. Darkness blankets the venue before sets of dancers fade in to the beginnings of "The Rite of Spring". What grandly unfolds is, per my discernment, a wordless and electrifying display of primal man's early steps toward the development of civilization - sex, dominance, survival - not at all unlike the pagan ritual from Stravinsky's original vision. As we, the audience, creep in closer we become aware of sweat pouring down the torsos of the performers who audibly heave for breath between bursts of aggressively rhythmic energy. The masochism of a life in dance is explicitly bared. Natural imperfection, crude emotion and physical catharsis are proudly exhibited in time with the melodramatically striking ballet score. But this is only the first 14 minutes of a hundred minute-long feature. What could be a more rewarding experience for those of us unfamiliar with the work of expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch is awkwardly chopped, its distinctly documentarian aspects proving rocky as they abruptly fade in and out of otherwise captivatingly free-flowing sequences. I imagine the intended 3D presentation aided immersion in to the collage of interpretive vignettes staged in factories and indoor swimming pools, on cliff tops and bustling metropolitan street corners - dance, if dance were trying and failing to mimic a minimalist Samuel Beckett play - but transplanting these personal tributes outside the theater seems to accomplish very little apart from occasionally lovely mise-en-scène.

Dracula - Tod Browning, 1931
Here's another major point of procrastination checked off. After owning the American version of Universal's 1931 "Dracula" production on VHS for over a decade, I finally popped the palatably iconic rendering of Bram Stoker's story on via the convenience of Netflix (I can pretty much drop the clarifying "Instant" now, eh?). This antediluvian Drac is ultra-clunky and drastically abated, but fun nevertheless. Unessential but for its legacy, one so engrained in popular culture most aren't so much as merely conscious of its source.

50/50 - Jonathan Levine, 2011
"Knocked Up" gets more emotional and swaps pregnancy for cancer, complete with Seth Rogen secretly reading guidebooks because, though you wouldn't guess it from his boorishly insensitive behavior, he's a good guy, folks! A la 2007's "The Savages" for those who care for Alzheimer's patients, "50/50" will probably work okay for those who are unfortunate enough to be able to relate to the plot, whether directly or peripherally, namely writer Will Reiser, for whom the film is autobiographical. On the level of accessibly laying out for an audience unfamiliar what it's like to spend a chapter of your life knowing you could be - for no blamable reason - on your last legs, it is wholly ineffective, due in large part to the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's protagonist is more or less introduced to us as "cancer patient guy", leaving us little chance to witness the changes the affliction causes in who he is. "50/50" does manage to find some (mostly tongue-in-cheek, character-based) humor within unexpected travesty, and while even in its stretches of sex and relationship focus it hardly neglects that travesty, it ultimately plays as an unoriginal striking of all the standard tearjerker chords. Well, hey, Anjelica Huston is characteristically good in her small role, we get to hear Philip Baker Hall awkwardly belting Alan Arkin-esque curses and, look over there, it's the guy who played Moloch in "Watchmen". And I wonder... will Bryce Dallas Howard someday be known for playing characters who aren't disingenuous bitches? Listen to further thoughts on episode 23 of Reel Time.

Something Borrowed - Luke Greenfield, 2011
As legitimately cute as it is fun to ridicule, even if it is frustratingly rooted in repetitious self-sabotage that sprawlingly concludes in a series of betrayals - some predictable, some plain lazy and nonsensical - against its own competent character development. After years of anticipating a follow-up to the surprisingly good "The Girl Next Door", it's strange to see Greenfield finally put something out that's so unambitious (in spite of the man's visible touches that do elevate it). Colin Egglesfield is like William Shatner figuring his way around a performance through a taller version of Tom Cruise's body.

Slither - James Gunn, 2006
It's... actually pretty feeble, albeit with some disgustingly fun sexual themes I only wish more had been done with, along similar lines as those of "Species" and, to an extent, "Splice". "Slither" does get by, however, on the fact that it really goes for its own gusto. That's not to say there aren't pulled punches (especially noticeable ones when taking in to account Gunn's more recent "Super"), but it's not exactly the kind of movie you're going to want to look away from for want not to miss whatever insane gross-out stunt is next in store. If anything, Michael Rooker.

Whiteout - Dominic Sena, 2009
I might have enjoyed this Beckinsanity bait (in which Kate is infamously made to introduce her character by needlessly undressing and showering) when I was 13 or 14, thinking highly of myself for finding a "grown up movie" entertaining. As some form of a "grown up", I can declare "Whiteout" a very boring procedure through a murder mystery marked only by its arctic setting that's impossible to care about beyond being another opportunity to ogle one of the most stunning of the few women I've ever watched abysmal-looking movies solely for.

Everything Must Go - Dan Rush, 2010
If the idea is to fall flat, is "it falls flat" still a valid complaint?

Machete - Robert Rodriguez, 2010
Where Rodriguez' "Planet Terror" is a failed mimicking of the general 1970s exploitation aesthetic under a contemporarily more gratuitous mentality primarily due to the conspicuously modern technology at work (I.E. digital cameras, digital effects and lame-o celluloid distress filters), "Machete" seems to take all that along with the even worse stance that grindhouse can be emulated simply through lazily creating the most boring and masturbatory kitchen sink ugliness possible. Watching this and "Punisher: War Zone" within a week of one another made me weary of even hearing the word "action" in relation to film.

Total: 14

Rewatches (4): Drive (Refn, 2011), Red State (Smith, 2011), Dazed & Confused (Linklater, 1993), Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
- "Drive" was even better the second time around for all the reasons a second viewing of a great film should be. An easy upgrade past "Midnight in Paris" for the yet undecided top spot on my 2011 favorites list. Based on a forthcoming rewatch of "The Tree of Life" (and, of course, first views of all the other films I've yet to see), it may well wind up my champ.
- Netflix' upload of "Dazed & Confused" is hideous compared to the DVD transfer I'm accustomed to. Maybe the murkier look lends something to the already illusory period authenticity (which, in spite of so many recognizable faces who were mere babies in 1976, always makes me think the film came from the '70s). Also only just noticed that the song Milla Jovovich sings briefly during the moon tower party is her own "The Alien Song (for Those Who Listen)" from her most excellent album "The Divine Comedy". So, wow, I guess Slater-san is actually right when he humorously rambles on (as he is wont to do) about the song being about aliens, man.
- Each time I watch "Adaptation" I am more and more impressed with its layered genius. How to describe it concisely? You're watching a movie about the writer writing the movie you're watching, which in turn is indeed about him trying to write the movie. Lines like "The screenplay kinda makes fun of me, doesn't it?" and "Who's gonna play me?" pull double duty in a unique humor department. Upon my very first viewing I thought it all kind of crumbled in act three only to realize soon after how perfectly the influence of Donald - brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman's fictional extension of his own insecurities - plays in to the climactic proceedings. My only real nitpick is one I often declare - come on, movie makers, we don't need constant reminders of "Three years later" or whatever. We... or, most of us, anyway... are smarter than to require that.

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