Monday, November 30, 2009

Team Sheen: "New Moon" & "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans"

Lets face it. What I have to say about New Moon is not going to make a difference to you anyway. Either you were super super excited about it and have already seen it, or you would see Robin William's new film Old Dogs before you would see New Moon (aka never).

If you happen to be on the fence, I can't really help you. The film is pretty much as you would expect. Copious lack of shirt wearing. Slow motion walking towards camera (while taking shirt off). Voice over. Plot. More Plot. Though I do have to say that whoever picked Robert Patterson's lipstick shades should probably reconsider their career choice - Ronald McDonald much? The first Twilight film I actually found interesting, Catherine Hardwicke seemed to be trying to do something more than just please thirteen year old girls. There was style there, a certain adherence to a film style I think of as "Pastoral": shots of nature interspersed with action for no reason other than to evoke a certain mood, and through these kinds of shots a placing of mood above plot. In contrast, Chris Weitz's film is pretty simple. It tells the story well enough, but that's about it.

But really the $64,000 question is Team Edward or Team Jacob? Right? How about option C? How about Micheal Sheen who has played both werewolves and vampires?? Can I be on his team?

So in honor of Micheal Sheen and if you haven't had enough of vampires yet, try Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Granted, the first Underworld film is the best, but this prequel which stars Sheen as he starts the thousand year war between the werewolves (lycans) and the vampires is just a lot of fun. In the NY Times review of the film, Manola Darghis writes:

" Tricked out in leather and heavy metal hair, the British actor Michael Sheen takes a lively break from his usual high-crust duties to bring wit, actual acting and some unexpected musculature to the goth-horror flick 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.' "

So yeah. TEAM SHEEN!!! *Scream* *Faint*

Monday, November 23, 2009

A.O. Scott's "Precious" Double Feature

I was going to write a little something about Precious, which was better than I expected (and surprisingly did not require the giant mound of tissues I had expected). Lee Daniels really does a good job walking the fine line between exploiting the subject and glossing over issues. But A. O. Scott beat me to it (read it!) and discusses much of the soul searching this film has caused. All I will say is that Mo'nique was truly amazing and deserves all the hype. ( and maybe I should have included the hug it out kitten again....)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A letter from Ken: The Road, or, The End.

[Should I mention that I'll now proceed to talk about this movie? There's this word I'm supposed to invoke at this point; although I'm resistant to deploy it, here it is -- spoilers.]
The Road. I saw it.
And it was bleak. We all die, except for an unlucky few among the human race, who meander about a desolate landscape of perpetual fires in a blisteringly cold climate. The sound one most often hears are petrified trees cracking to pieces, echoing like distant, dried out glaciers (if such a thing is even possible).

How did it come about in this particular post-apocolyptic narrative? If one of the early trailers is to be believed, it's from a mess of environmental disasters brought about by human ignorance, apparently by not listening to Al Gore and not building proper levees, etc., etc. (I actually thought I was watching the trailer for Blindness again). It's actually incredibly misleading -- without the benefit of having seen the current tv ad campaign or read the book beforehand, the cause of what is basically the end of the world in The Road is never explained. Ever. And like much else in the movie, it helps to keep everything off-kilter.

Directed by John Hillicoat, whose last outing was the terrific Oz land western, The Proposition, and adapted for the screen by Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road pulls no punches. "The end of humanity" is pretty much the most depressing thing out there, and the filmmakers do a really intelligent job of never relenting from this tone. You can find your bearings in the story of a father ("The Man") and son ("The Boy"; the characters are never given Christian names) keeping it together for the sake of each other, but then you always hear those trees cracking. Fine: Even this, you tell yourself, you can get used to, as it is a neat design of sound, but then there's the fact that there are no identifiable signs of color in this world; the whole palette seems intended to tell you no color exists. It got killed or died or was maybe eaten by whatever killed everything else. The color. But, OK: Again, cool, stylistic choice, and even in this you can distance yourself somewhat. But, oh, right...most of the remaining people encountered in this journey, well...they eat each other. Like zombies, except they're still recognizable as human beings, they're still speaking to each other in those terms, yet what they really want to do is eat you. Even if you manage to survive all of this (at least just for the sake of your kid, like "The Man" that Viggo Mortensen portrays), what really starts to get to you are the dreams you've been having of the life you had with your wife (Charlize Theron) and how those were definitely in color and you got to go with her to the symphony and wear nice, expensive clothes and got to sneakily feel up your hot wife's thigh. Before it all went to shit.

I try to convey all this, because I'm having a hard time thinking of a way to really recommend this movie to you. Somewhere in the first ten minutes, the Man reminds the Boy how to put their only pistol with two lone bullets to the temple of his kid-sized head, just in case he needs to. That scene is done in full-close up on the child: The Boy has tears in his eyes as he's resisting, then showing his dad that he can do it and that he's prepared. I mean, it really is fucking depressing.

The Road was amazing to watch, and certainly compelling as you parse out the purpose of all this tragedy. Not that it's particularly tragic; I wouldn't want to oversell it. But really, what is the point? The movie obliquely refers to the fact that a good chunk of the population that likely survived the "event" that caused all this checked themselves out at some point, because it started to become plainly obvious that sticking around only meant that you were a potential meal or that you were in denial that any semblance of "happy days" or "good times" would ever return.

And that's it. The question of "Why go on living?" is never really explicitly answered. There is something at the end that is pretty much the definition of "speck of hope", but even this seems like cold comfort (it even struck me as being somewhat unbelievable in the context of everything else that happens, and I was honestly surprised that this was the ending in the book, but there it is).

What it does have is a visual consistency that is stunning. A bolder move might've been to just film it all in black & white (you know, "stark"), but cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe really makes perfect choices in what he does choose to keep in the color scheme of the picture, and it's enough to convince you of some warmth that keeps you involved in the experience of what the Man and Boy go through. It's there in the can of coke they discover in a resistant vending machine of a long abandoned building, and it's there when they open a tin of peaches in one of the happier moments in the movie. Yes, there's some happy times.

The performances are tremendous -- the entire story is carried on both Mortensen's and the unaffected, unpretentious Kodi Smit-McPhee's strong yet sickly shoulders (an aside -- the digital effects used throughout are effective in that they only ever seem necessary but never so obvious: Mostly in leeching out the color of the images, but then, as the Man and Boy strip naked to take their first bath in too long a time, we really get a sense of how ravaged and starving they really are. It's a testament to their performances that by the time this scene comes around, you believe the actors really stopped eating, too). Everyone else in the cast really only amounts to walk-on performances, but those shine brightly -- Charlize Theron as "The Woman" (whose face time in the trailer also seems to make you think she's in it for awhile; she's not), Garrett Dillahunt ("Deadwood"!), an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall, poor Michael K. Williams ("The Wire"!!!) near the end, and then Guy Pierce and Molly Parker ("Deadwood"!!) at the very end.

For fans of the book, I can tell you that I read it after seeing the movie and that it's pretty much verbatim. (That arguably single most disturbing scene in the book where The Man breaks the lock to the first cellar and finds the, um, people? It's in the movie, and it's there pretty vividly.) For everyone else, I have to tell you that it's worth seeing, that I liked it immensely, but I can also tell you that the crowd immediately around my section of the screening left wondering how they could even release something like this. Who could watch it? Who would want to? On Thanksgiving weekend, no less!? It does put our economic woes in perspective. It makes you want to give everyone you love in this world a hug. And then maybe everyone else after that.
I mostly just wanted to write something about how I felt watching this movie, but I did want to put it in the classic context of this blog, so to that end, you have a few options for a celluloid tango:

1) The movie I actually thought of initially was Children of Men -- a similar combination of dread and a sense of loss is conveyed throughout, and like the first third or so of Alfonso Cuaron's movie, the entirety of The Road has the feel of an elegy for the world, and what it may feel or look like to be witness to the end of everything. There's even that twinge of hopefulness at end. Or something.
2) WALL*E. You'll feel a lot better afterwards no matter what. Maybe especially if you don't even like WALL*E.
3) Once I gave this some serious thought, it occurred to me that The Road most resembles Kon Ichikawa's (OK, I'll say it) masterpiece Fires on the Plain, which is a little more specific in terms of what is happening and why, but also conveys the same sense of desperation in a world that is ending but not quite soon enough, and the almost absurd yet mundane facts of life (among these, cannibalism) under the circumstances. They even share similar plot points -- the encounters with people along the road, the fires in the distance that are sometimes only heard, and what sometimes seem to amount to illusions of hope: The soldiers in Fires that fight to get to the coast, much like the Man's determination to do the same, and that things will get better for he and the Boy once they achieve this goal. Probably the most comforting thing about Fires on the Plain is that it ends with a definite feeling that this was the end of someone's world, and the rest of the world has moved beyond that (and hopefully evolved) with all of us still on it. Maybe you should watch it after watching The Road. And then buy a kitten. To hug.

Thanks to Ken Tan for contributing this post!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The Clone Returns Home" and "Solaris"

Among the year's most widely ridiculed statements in the cinema world, Lars von Trier's dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky before the end credits of Antichrist ranks right up there at the very top. Having seen von Trier's film myself, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a prank on the part of the Danish provocateur, although, at the same time, I'm also not quite sure that Tarkovsky would welcome such an irrelevant mention.

In the November issue of Sight & Sound, editor Nick James, when discussing the tastes and selections of film festivals worldwide, observes that many of the prominent filmmakers of today - from Bela Tarr to Bruno Dumont and Apichatpong Weerasethakul - are "all unified by a post-Tarkovskian idea of poetic cinema", and "the reverence with which much of this cinema is regarded is ... too often uncritical".

I don't know. If James' statement is accurate, a film like The Clone Returns Home, written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Kanji Nakajima, would most certainly deserve a bigger audience than it has so far. By juxtaposing a sci-fi premise (cloning, space mission) with highly philosophical musing on such ideas as memories, family, identity, death, and the nature of the human soul, the film looks like something that you might get if Solaris and Stalker were ever rolled into one. (There's even a bit of indoor water-dripping!)

The wife of The Clone's astronaut protagonist is faced with a similar moral dilemma encountered by Solaris' protagonist. Her husband has volunteered for an experimental cloning program that will 'regenerate' his body and memory after any accidental death during his missions. When it actually happens, the scientists meet with her to relate the plan, opening by stating that they're not there to offer condolescence. The wife is, rightly, furious with the offer - you don't replace your beloved partner with a clone; although, when she's countered with the matter-of-fact reply, "In that case, we'll have to offer you our condolescence", her resistence crumbles.

All in all, yes, Nakajima's film is almost as boring as Tarkovsky's (excuse me). But then again, anyone who's willing to last the 110-minute distance will be justly rewarded with a highly cerebral, and strangely touching, journey into the afterlife.