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Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
15 Bucks I Don't Want Back. I Love America.
More K-Mart. More K-Mart. MORE K-MART!
I know: one model-slash-actress should be enough. Three female slashies plus four slashie guys verges on overkill. Watching skinny women (even adults) flip, flop and fly in leggings of their own design is great fun. But you throw in a teenager toward the end, and I get nostalgic for the days when Milla Jovovich wasn't quite so grown up. It's awful of me to say since, in her mid-thirties, she looks fabulous. Except she doesn't look twenty.
Should I hate myself for admitting my opinion? Hey, it cuts both ways. I don't look as good as I used to either. And I never looked as good as Milla. But I digress.
For what it is, a 4th-installment video-game spin-off 3D spectacle with less story, plot, or character than the slimmest of its forebears, it's a fine effort. Lots of shooting, stabbing, cutting, biting, crashing, yeah, yeah, yeah. "Afterlife" destroys Tokyo better than most Godzilla movies do. And while I think it's a mistake to top-load a Milla movie with multiple Millas and then spiral down to one, there are compensations. Watching people get blown apart with coin-loaded shotguns is better than, say, not watching that.
To be fair, these movies do have one character, and (usually; definitely in this case) one actor who deserves the title. Milla's better than any other single factor in these things, though this time she has fewer opportunities to act than in the previous three; but that's okay, because the combined presence of Ali Larter and Wentworth Miller is nearly enough to stop me from paying to see any slashie act again, ever.
Piranha 3D (2010)
For the Demographic Too Shy to Murder Its Own Girls
In the minus column:
A hackneyed plot. Banal dialogue. Perfunctory characters. Action without consequence. Good actors in bad roles. Bad actors in bad roles, especially many annoying performers who do not die early enough, or who do not die at all, including two dull children whose only purpose in the film is to be eaten by piranha, and who are not. Plus a weak story as an excuse for various types of titillation.
Various types of titillation, including the violent deaths of Eli Roth and Jerry O'Connell. Come on. That's some big pluses.
This movie more or less performs its primary directive, which is to teach young boys how to masturbate to softcore sex while simultaneously enjoying hardcore violence. Or the other way around, maybe; does it matter? At least "Piranha 3D" is unpretentious in the structure department. It doesn't bother making its fish expert a scientist, but rather a guy played by a guy who used to play a scientist. On one level, that's lazy filmmaking. On another, though, it's pretty efficient shorthand.
However, the movie does make the strange choice of looking down upon a character whose job is to make pornography. Since this movie's job is to be pornography, I'm confused. Is that a metaphysical statement? Is this creation talking back to its maker? Or is it just unselfconscious enough not to notice that it contains all the dirty stuff its villain wants us to see?
Besides all that, the movie offers up several kinds of wish fulfillment: underdog heroism; blonde girls who would never sleep with you getting their hair caught in outboard motors; and the greatest gift of all, that it is soon over.
Winter's Bone (2010)
Hard, hard, hard
This picture has a number of qualities that set it apart from most entertainments I've experienced recently. The writing is subtle and simple and quietly deep; the production design, musical choices and direction are effective because they are so extraordinarily straightforward, supporting that tight little script. The acting, much of it by non-actors, is persuasive and accurate. I'm not saying it's always easy to watch. There's grimness here, and pain, and a stark, textured shorthand that almost denies viewers the time to weep. But primarily, endearingly, "Winter's Bone" is notable for what it is not.
It's not a feel-good picture, even though its lead is a 17-year-old girl looking for her dad. It's not a brutal thriller, despite featuring teenagers wandering woods populated by armed, drug-addled rednecks. And it's not an ode to the simple life, though it presents likable ragamuffins in the bosom of Heartland countryside.
So what is it? Great independent filmmaking, the kind Miramax almost gave a bad name, the kind that tells a story absent of primary-color commentary, unlikely happy endings, unnecessary violence, false emotion, and the rest of the junk that keeps thoughtful moviegoers out of the multiplex in the summer.
I don't know when I've seen a less sentimental movie: the tragedies and horrors of the rural criminal life pervade the story, yet they are not the story, and they do not derail the story. "Winter's Bone" asks me to feel sorry for no one, to be outraged on no one's behalf, to write a letter to no congressman. I am witness, not participant. I'm not implicated or accused, and so I am not insulted.
Before this one, I can't remember a film about hillbillies that wasn't at least a little condescending, not since "Harlan County USA", and that was a documentary. Shockingly, this movie treats the uneducated as engaged citizens in command of their faculties with every chance to live a fulfilled life. Nobody in this story has more than a high school diploma, and our protagonist has less than that, yet there are no stupids here, no clowns. Most of the characters are frighteningly competent and capable. Some of them are wise.
And rare and precious is the movie about teenage girls that treats them as neither object nor subject of sexual action. How beautiful to avoid the whole oversaturated palette of pubescent angst! How thankful I am to Debra Granik for presenting a few days in the journey of a heroine who walks through fire, loses all, gains all, and feels no need to turn from the path to kiss a boy.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Love Minus Freakshow
Simple, quiet, true, and lovely - really? A new American movie, not terribly stylized, with a mostly unobtrusive director and a primary cast over 45? And not boring, and just a bit sappy? Huh. I didn't see "High Art". I didn't finish "Laurel Canyon". But I didn't want "The Kids Are All Right" to end. After this one, Lisa Cholodenko is aces with me.
A story's a story as long as it feels like one. I watched this movie with tears in my wide eyes, cared about everybody, couldn't find a bad guy, didn't want one. Plot? Yes. Plot points? Not so much. It plays like life, which is less about notable moments of beat change than a subtle ebb and flow of regression and renewal. In fact this movie is least effective, strains credibility most, when it reaches for conventional action.
So, okay, the third act's a little facile; nobody gets in real trouble, nothing costs enough. I love it anyway. Beautiful performances in an intelligent, well-directed script: this is why more women should make movies: because they don't yell all the goddamn time. Real life contains violence, insanity, and inconsiderate behavior, but there are degrees, man. This movie reflects enough variety in its mirror-up-to-nature, as 'twere, to overwhelm the same old sturm und drang of the last few Jason Reitman, Rob Reiner or Sam Mendes bores. Nobody has to die, nobody has to crash a car or break a bottle or spit out bad jokes like sunflower seeds just to tell a story. Drama's where you find it. A family provides plenty; most people don't survive their own.
Not enough can be said about the five principals either. Performers like these can sell on-the-nose dialogue (it's often better than that) as if it's Shakespeare, and they do. As my buddy Dmitry's always said, Annette Bening is excellent as long as she doesn't have to play a sympathetic character. Mark Ruffalo doesn't make mistakes; Julianne Moore has forgotten the meaning of the word. And these kids are more like real kids than any I've seen in a movie since "Donnie Darko", which is my highest praise for teenage verisimilitude.
See this movie, take your children, your spouse, your potential other. If you don't recognize yourselves in there somewhere, check your pulse.
Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Movie with the Dragging Denouement
"Dragon Tattoo" starts well, introducing its characters with depth and a measured pace not usually found in thrillers unless they were directed by Polanski before this century. Unfortunately, this stately poise never allows it to pick up the energy necessary to deliver real thrills, and somewhere in the second hour it loses the intelligence and grace of the first act. Then it becomes idiotic. Then it gets boring.
A procedural drama is fine. A procedural drama spiced with dynamic, interesting characters is better than that. But a serial killer working with biblical references? Really? At this late date? Add to that a tendency to shoot multiple scenes to deliver information that could be processed in a shot, plus falling action nearly as long as any one of the acts proper, and you're trying my patience.
And this movie's real plot begins with a howler: a smart guy and a smarter guy both fail to recognize that a girl who sends a very specific message once a year has probably not been dead for forty. Their even smarter assistant not only doesn't notice their stupidity, she abets it. After that kind of misstep, it's difficult to keep my feet in this languorous waltz with Queen Mab. Finally I had to put them up on the seat in front of me and wait for Noomi to take her clothes off again, which she didn't do nearly often enough.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
proof that we'll follow Robert Downey Jr anywhere
Guy Ritchie doesn't make movies, he makes delivery systems for stupidity. Loud, empty, aggressively uninteresting, a Guy Ritchie movie is almost as ugly as Christmas in a dorm room and just as depressing. At least in your dorm, you could make phone calls home and maybe read a book. In a Guy Ritchie movie, all you can do is sleep. And you can't even do that unless you bring earplugs.
Ritchie diligently repeats every piece of information - vital, moderately important, irrelevant - as if convinced the audience shares his I.Q. deficit. Redundancy is a fond memory in his world: dead horses at least make a different noise when beaten in different locations. Shake a stick at Guy Ritchie and you get the same reaction every time, a hollow thud resonating in a void. A very loud hollow thud.
Downey is fine, but he's been better in better comic books. Jude Law is very good, but other than SLEUTH, when was he not? And the great wasteland of this SHERLOCK, and of any Guy Ritchie product, is populated by excellent supporting players brought to mediocrity. Ritchie has succeeded in failing to make Mark Strong an exciting screen presence, a feat even Ridley Scott couldn't accomplish; the lovely Rachel McAdams, who has proved her ability in drama and comedy, here can't even manifest the basic facial expressions of the pantomime: fear? Nope. Passion? Uh-uh. Boredom? Well, we're together on that one.
Yes, I've read every one of the Conan Doyle stories, and yes, there's ample support for Holmes as a pugilist, a narcissist, an adrenaline junkie. What I have failed to find any previous evidence of is Holmes as a soporific. Guy Ritchie has performed a sort of Christmas miracle by making one of the great dynamic intellectuals of literature into a dull, third rate professor of history.
If you're going to make a movie with more than five set pieces, you'd do well to realize you're making an action movie. And if you're making an action movie, it behooves you to ensure that the audience hasn't seen every one of the fights before, not only in countless other movies but in THIS one! What a breakthrough, Guy. Watching one of your movies is like regurgitating a piece of gristle. Madonna, mediocrity that she is, was as close as you ever got to significance.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Wes Anderson: A Hero's Journeyman
In a movie year so vapid that I found myself debating the virtues of Michael Bay vs Roland Emmerich (two sickening panderers, the latter of whom is at least less a Hasbro salesman than a bad filmmaker), I just about gave up on going to the movies. Just about. Then Wes Anderson released the best filmed fairy tale since the invention of the zoetrope.
It may be argued that Anderson is not the most consistent director working. That attribute is better attached to Bay, who consistently insults my intelligence. But consistency, while a virtue, is not the mark an artist ought to hit. Excellence is a better target. Michael Bay thinks that excellence is measured by ticket sales, that transcendence is related to expenditure, that success is found in delivering the lowest common denominator of good time to the broadest possible spectrum of children. Every shot in a Michael Bay movie feels test-marketed. Which is why his movies tend to last exactly as long as their initial release.
So, yeah, I am a big Wes Anderson fan. I still don't like BOTTLE ROCKET all that much, but it is better than any movie I saw this year not directed by Wes Anderson. This guy is so defiantly not a populist that with every new release, I grow a little more afraid of his never getting funding again. His movies don't tend to make money. His audiences are necessarily educated, open-minded, analytical, patient, compassionate. Does this sound like your America? Anderson seems uninterested in selling a single ticket. He clearly has no desire to make a movie that will help him to make more movies. Any question remaining on this point after LIFE AQUATIC was answered by DARJEELING LIMITED. Here is a man who can only make art for himself. He will starve before he makes any other kind. So I worry, because he happens, tangentially, to be making it for me too.
And hey - this is a kids' movie. Anyway, I'm sure Fox thought so when it signed up. I mean, it's animated, it's from a kids' book, it's got talking animals. But the kids in the theater with me did not experience my ecstasy. They will not clamor for Mr Fox dolls on Black Friday. Mr Fox is in fact a scary, villainous, superficially charming ne'er-do-well. He is boorish, a dangerous egotist. A bad father. A bad husband. His excuse ("I'm a wild animal") sounds like a wifebeater's apology. The movie does not celebrate his deeds or personality. At the end of the picture, he has reduced his community to living in a sewer, eating synthetic versions of the real food they used to enjoy, with none of their former freedoms, listening to his speeches about how THIS is the good life while the rest of the world tries to kill them. (What kind of metaphor for suburban values is this? Mr Fox as Mr Bush? Am I reaching? I am not.) So this isn't a movie for kids. It isn't a movie for imperialists. It isn't a movie for 20th Century Fox, who would surely have preferred another STAR WARS-type toy delivery system.
It's a movie for me.
There's my G.I. Joe from 1975, blowing up the Fox home. There's Roald Dahl's repeated line about "little electric sparks" dancing in the characters' eyes, finally brought to life. There's the opossum that keeps invading my mother's house. What? Yes. It's a movie so god damn personal that it achieves the universal through minutiae. In doing so it achieves my dream of a fairy tale so much like a pre-Disney Grimm version that 80% of the characters behave with total self-interest and abuse everyone else.
It's a myth that performs the essential function of mythology: it reminds me of my responsibilities to my society, which are legion. I must be all I can be; I must not bring harm to my friends; I must not make bad art to buy another Lamborghini.
It's a movie from Wes Anderson, for Wes Anderson and me and you. And if Michael Bay sees it, perhaps it'll do us all some good.
Professione: reporter (1975)
A Langorous Panic
If you're lost in your own life, you probably couldn't make your way through someone else's. So know thyself, enjoy what you've got, be careful what you pretend to be, and remember: wherever you go, there you are. But this movie manages to be more than a collection of truisms. Or does it? Maybe that's enough. Very little was always enough for Antonioni.
It's a pretty trip, without a lot of talking to spoil the scenery. And for all its seeming lack of pace, it fairly breezes by. It's all those landscapes changing every few minutes, I guess, plus I'm a sucker for a footloose American vagabond with mysterious cash and a big convertible and a little automatic. And Maria Schneider.
At the center of the vehicle is Nicholson, who plays confused and headstrong better than anybody since Belmondo. His edge-of-violence persona is on its permanent 70s high simmer throughout this story. He enjoys himself as much as a man can who knows he's on the down side of freedom, but there's a hopelessness to his existential quest: after awhile he doesn't even keep his appointments anymore. He keeps me engaged, even when the story doesn't, by getting progressively more resigned to another man's fate. It's hard to look away from a man about to walk in front of a truck he can see coming.
Everybody wants to be adopted by a rich uncle. Everybody wants to pick up a girl who just cleaned out her boss's register. It's fairy godmothers and runaway princesses. But fairy tales are grim affairs. Remember the one about the maid who switches costumes with her mistress and gets stuck naked in a barrel riddled with nails and tossed in the river? Nobody wants to be the maid. There isn't much free in any life, heaven or hell or where we are. There are consequences to any act. Newton's third law applies to every tale, fairy or straight.
The action is a monster who can give you what you want. The opposite reaction of L'IMBALSAMATORE is that in return, Rumpelstiltskin wants more than your baby. He wants you. That's what he always wanted anyway, and there's not much in the world sadder than an aging troll. An aging troll is a desperate animal, like a junkie in his impossible obsession, but junkies can clean up. A troll is what God made him, and it doesn't end well for most of them. Peppino Profeta can maybe see the future, as his name implies, but also as his name implies he's a little short-sighted. Like most men he can't see past his erection. He gets in over his head and that's where people drown, but sometimes they take you with them. This little monster, pathetic as he is, could do a lot of damage. Matteo Garrone photographs this character from odd angles, relegating him to the corner of the frame much of the time to accentuate his marginalization.
Add to that the movie's grim look (the film is grainy and underexposed, packed with pore-opening closeups on the world's dirtiest beach) and its cringe-fetish situations (nearly every scene portrays an awkward or unpleasant social encounter) and you've got a prime downer of a story. It is creepy and nasty and willing to go places that horrify most people. I like it. When Valerio sleeps with his troll, the movie does not exploit his charity or contempt or self loathing, nor do we even know whether he feels any of these things. How often in life do we have complicated motivations to explain our acts? Much of the time, for me. People who are 100% sure about every choice they make live in an atmosphere immensely less textured than mine. Living in America I get very few straightforward portraits of weird worlds. North American directors who shoot ambiguous stories tend to be stylists like the magi David Lynch, Todd Solondz, or Todd Haynes. We get occasional fine entries by Gus Van Sant, again usually heavily personalized, and David Cronenberg keeps trying but only made me happy once. It's nice to see a 3-dimensional neo-realist take on the asymmetrical universe. Where better than Italy to find such a thing?
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
A Story as True as a Lie Can Be
This movie begins on one cliché ("Why do good things happen to bad people?") and ends on another ("God works in mysterious ways"). It would be silly to expect much else in between. House on site of evil rites, child with health problems who won't admit he can see ghosts due to sanity-related obstacle, parents with substance abuse and money issues, mysterious locked room in basement, creepy attic, demonic spirits battled by angelic spirits expiating guilt, ludicrously over-informed religious father figure, failed exorcism, shadowy entities confined to mirrors and doorways for the first act culminating in disappointing full-body manifestations later on, editing instead of plotting. Stop me. Note to filmmakers: flash cuts to dead children have been passé since the day after THE SHINING left theaters.
Troubled family moves into haunted house; meets benevolent priest who raises Cain; family settles Abel. Sound familiar? Maybe because the same ghost hunters who foisted THE AMITYVILLE HORROR upon tabloid America also helped the Snedeker family spew up this pile of bile. The non-events in Amityville, NY at least provided fodder for one good movie (out of nine so far). Whatever didn't happen in Southington, CT was not destined to do the same, except for the lousy sequel part, which we can expect to come straight to video faster than you can say ka-ching.
This is my least favorite sort of genre picture: not quite shameless enough. This movie has the chutzpah to trade on the most familiar horror movie stock, but not the guts to exploit its most licentious elements. 13 GHOSTS defeats its hackneyed set-up with an ingenious gore factor. Not THE HAUNTING, whose most graphic violence is reserved for corpses. A teenage girl showers, with suggestive images of a bar of soap making its way up her knees, but nothing comes of it except a 5-second plastic sheet attack. At least in STEPFATHER, the shower scene includes nudity - gratuitous, yes. And necessary. It's a B movie. The real life Connecticut liars claim that several family members, including the father, were sodomized by demons. Some of the psychics who came to corroborate this bullshit say that the house was the former home of necrophilia. All of this, which while distasteful is at least interesting, is completely missing from the movie. Instead we get some piled chairs from POLTERGEIST and editing from SILENT HILL.
The actors do their best, but there's not much Elias Koteas can do with a character already played twice by Rod Steiger. And there's nothing Virginia Madsen or anyone can do with a scene where she cringes in a house obviously not really burning down, from which she could escape as easily as she just got in, and has to recite the god damn Lord's Prayer. The Lord's Prayer? Are you kidding? In 2009? Has the art of screen writing progressed no further than this?
If you're not going to scare me, thrill me. If you're not going to intrigue me, titillate me. If you can't do that, stay out of genre pictures.