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The Fighter (2010)
The Fighter is quite good. There aren't all that many surprises here, and those of us who ♥ed David O. Russel's out-there Huckabees will be a little disappointed by its safeness, but it is definitely good. Quite good, even.
The film's obvious standout is Christian Bale as Dicky, demonstrating his range and relevance as an affable, crack-addicted former fighter. Mark Wahlberg plays Dicky's still-fighting brother with unending restraint; he scores points for subtlety in the film's familial drama while losing as many in his charmless, unsmiling romance with Amy Adams's Charlene. There is exactly as much here as is necessary to make the film's finale engaging and rewarding, but very little to remember afterward--it really is quite successful in its predictable underdog ambitions, but it never really aims any higher.
All things considered, the Fighter is almost exactly the lackluster triumph implied in its generic title and trailer--it doesn't reinvent the sport underdog story, but it isn't trying to. This movie only aims to be a quite good entry in its admittedly overaccessable genre; in that it succeeds entirely.
Jackass 3D (2010)
In 1928, Charlie Chaplin wowed audiences by appearing on screen with a real, live lion for his celebrated film The Circus. A lion! Real! On screen! Audiences were mesmerized by this fascinating new art of cinema, an art made all the more engaging for the fact that the plastics of its image had roots in reality; that somewhere else in space and time, Chaplin had actually stood next to this lion and the reality of this image was now available to them for their own viewing pleasure.
For a contemporary equivalent, I give you Steve-O launched through the stratosphere in a PortaPotty full of dog poop. In 3D.
Jackass 3D appeals to cinema's time-honored capacity for ontological testament, and makes an equally compelling case for the camera's potency as an empathy machine: We see the setup of a stunt, we endure its execution, and we then either clutch our balls or puke in our mouths, depending on what the stunt entails. Cinema is reality, and their pain is ours.
Jackass isn't simply effective in the art of its performers, however, as there is a genius to the framing and editing of each segment as well. Many of the film's laughs are built in to its premises, and the crew smartly eschews over-explanation. We see a tee ball, we see the path this ball is on track to take, and we see Steve-O's nuts--as an intelligent and discerning audience, it is left to us to piece together the narrative before it unfolds, resulting in our increased engagement and a far greater potential for humor upon realization. And we then hang in that moment of anticipation, until the situation's potential energy is quickly and cathartically rendered kinetic.
Jackass 3D is notable as well for its use of stereoscopic 3D cinematography. In one scene, Johnny Knoxville fires a projectile toward the screen in slow motion to great effect: shallow depth of field slowly reveals this item to be a dildo, and 3D reveals the dildo to be humorously close to your face. Elsewhere, stereoscopy is employed in the service of some truly excellent model work; the scene's genuine beauty makes its ultimate subversion all the more effective.
Needless to say, Jackass 3D will not appeal to everyone. But as the film so effectively marries the ontology of outrageous stupidity to so many facets of cinematic expression, it's definitely worth seeing if you think you can stomach it. TK 10/17/10
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
I recently attended a midnight screening of David Yates's latest Harry Potter film with my younger sister and her friend, both girls age 11. The two sat enraptured throughout, and walked out of the theater with a nearly full tub of popcorn. "Hmm," said the friend, looking at how little she'd eaten, "I guess that wasn't really a popcorn movie." She said a mouthful there.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is worlds away from Chris Columbus's charming children's films, both in tone and impact. Where the series began in light ooh-look-at-that fantasy, it now accepts the wizarding world as established and takes its stories and subjects seriously. This means that those uninitiated will likely be very confused, but who cares. Deathly Hallows 1 exists as a bridge between the six films proceeding it and the one to come; there is perhaps limited narrative potential in that purpose, but there's plenty of room for character, exposition, and style.
These three functions offer mixed returns. In terms of character, I do feel that any realistic appraisal of the film must acknowledge a certain amount of sketchy dialog and strained conversational rhythm. This can occasionally be distracting, particularly as the three protagonists' interactions dominate the film's second act. The best developments on the character front come in Hallows's subtler moments; Emma Watson's Hermione is afforded a heartbreaking opening only alluded to in the source material, and Yates allows Rupert Grint's Ron to carry much of his performance in sustained emotional gazes.
In terms of laying out exposition for the series finale, Hallows delivers about as well as it can. As I was already familiar with J.K. Rowling's novels, I can't be entirely sure how understandable this will all be for the film-only crowd; some things are intentionally not yet explained, others may simply be unclear--I knew what was going on so I can only speculate. One block of exposition that I had been dreading actually turned out to be a highlight: the story of the Three Brothers is accompanied by a lucid sequence of stylish animation; it offers effective visual interest without disrupting the film's tone.
In fact, it is in the film's style that it truly exceeds expectations. Yates, as mentioned earlier, takes this story seriously and photographs it as such. The film's effects are rarely ostentatious, and when they do tend toward spectacle, the grandiosity is earned from Hallows's quieter passages. Yates mostly commands the camera as a tool of framing and focus, which lends the film a maturity of form to match its more mature content.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 will please its fans and most likely baffle everyone else, but whether one is familiar with the books, the films, both or neither, this is a solid, serious, and stylish entry in the series. Its effectiveness will be best judged when Part 2 arrives to ideally validate the work done here, but until then this film exists as an unexpectedly compelling placeholder. To those in it for long hall, Part 1 comes highly recommended--just don't expect to eat much popcorn. -TK 11/19/10
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3
Objectivity is never easy, but in judging Toy Story 3, it's an almost entirely pointless aspiration. I got my Woody and Buzz toys when I was six. I had those stylized clouds from Andy's room on my wallpaper. I was choking up when "You've Got a Friend in Me" started playing over the film's achingly nostalgic VHS opening.
I could try and share my overwhelmingly positive and occasionally negative observations--the breakout scene pops with Chaplinesque inventiveness, while Jessie is a tad underserved by the screenplay etc--but for me, Toy Story 3 is defined by the fact that I was streaming tears literally non- stop for the last twenty minutes or so. If you occupy a similar space of hopeless subjectivity, Toy Story 3 will be one of the most moving and rewarding cinematic experiences of the year. -TK 11/16/10
Just as expected, Hard Eight is most interesting as a document of young Paul Thomas Anderson finding his footing. Anderson's style is well developed; the film is full of subtle, effective camera movement and he constructs a fully realized world both in and out of the frame. The writing is a bit more problematic: Hard Eight lacks the personal/political weight of his later material, and Sydney is really a bit racist--why parking lot security, man? The material is elevated by a commanding performance from Philip Baker Hall, but it's most interesting as a precursor to Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood... holy sh*t that's a filmography. Watch those first. -TK 11/16/10
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
From the vantage point of film 2010, Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas plays as a darker, more intelligent, and significantly funnier version of hit comedy The Hangover; the difference, besides quality, being that Fear and Loathing recognizes its protagonists' exploits as ultimately somewhat pathetic. The film is saturated with canted angles and American flags, in service of a point that the Hangover only touched on through meta-accident: if Vegas is the American dream, what we value as a people is strangely skewed. Johnny Depp gives a superbly bizarre performance, and the material lends itself well to the most surreal elements of Terry Gilliam's style. Fear and Loathing entertainingly indulges excess after excess, but it crucially maintains awareness of itself--it makes a statement without ever compromising its hilarity. -TK 11/16/10
Todd Haynes's Safe is married to its era's increased awareness of plastic toxicity: where the world had once embraced plastics as miraculous new wondersubstance, its environmental implications were at last coming to the forefront. There is tension, however, in the toxicity of plastic's chemical origins and the sterility promised in its final form: overwhelmed by the omnipresence of invisible chemical fumes, protagonist Carol White finds refuge in a plastic oxygen mask. The irony of her reliance on plastics mirrors her relationship to larger systems of oppression in the film: in escaping her claustrophobically prescriptive suburban life, she finds even greater claustrophobia and restriction on her anti-chemical reservation; she must strain herself to find the new environment any sort of improvement. The film offers a clever commentary on our relationship to the social systems above us, and comes recommended in spite of its occasional intentional dullness. TK 11/11/10
Superstar the Karen Carpenter Story
Though Todd Haynes's Superstar is certainly a Karen Carpenter story, it is just as much a story of values-oriented America, perfectly captured in an American icon: the Barbie doll. Superstar tells the story of Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia by puppeting Barbies and Kens to represent all of the film's central characters. It is notable for its necessarily unusual visual style and varied disruptions of narrative, but I was most taken with the compellingly complex relationship that each of the film's three central icons--Carpenter, America, Barbie--all have with their own central ironies.
Although there is a clear tension between surface appeal and sinister social implication in the above subjects of Superstar, their dualities don't corrupt their dual natures toward compromised unity so much as they feed both natures individually and independently: in spite of Carpenter's stress and anorexia, her earnestness and purity of intention are played as 100% real; whatever problematic femininity Barbie embodies, she is still sold as a genuine model of perfection; whatever clusterf*** of societal ills America may be--the film at one point explicitly invokes Watergate, citing Nixon as an avid Carpenter fan--the country keeps unceasingly God- blessing itself.
It is noteworthy as well that these icons don't necessarily lack self- awareness--Carpenter tries to address her anorexia, Barbie caves to some new criticism every five years or so--but that they forge ahead ignoring the fact that they are complex and imperfect entities; they maintain identities of apparent perfection while fostering dark realities, ignoring their irony in spite of their awareness.
These are not winking ironies, they are not overtly clever or stylish ironies, they are the ironies of compellingly and frighteningly sequestered schemas. Todd Haynes recognizes the strange tension of earnestness and irony in Carpenter/Barbie/America, and smartly avoids winking or nudging in the style of his film. Superstar's Barbie as Carpenter premise is certainly clever, but it is not simply an exercise in cleverness: it is a surprisingly but appropriately genuine exploration of its subjects' complexities, and it is worth the considerable trouble required to see it. -TK 11/7/10
The Three Caballeros (1944)
The Three Caballeros
If your kids like this film, IMDb recommends Fellini's 8½! Yeah, this one's weirder than you thought.
The Three Caballeros is essentially a barely narrative series of experimental animated shorts, starting in nature film parody, progressing to a couple of early live-action/animation hybrids, and ending in a lustful interspecies psychedelic freakout--needless to say, it's an influential film. You might have to gag through some touristy Latinisms, but there's some prime Disney surrealism waiting for you if you do.
Memory: unforgivably stupid plot, nonsensical action and motivations, terrible performances from everyone but Dennis Hopper, male "characters" are defined by alcohol and sex obsession + vague, cartoonish nobility, female characters have no attributes, music is cheap and overbearing, editing is distractingly shoddy, much of the action is literally the lead character reading exposition aloud to himself, and it's never at all thrilling. There's a very small amount of stupid fun in the film's preposterous conclusion, but all things considered, Memory isn't really worthy of complete sentences. -TK 10/31/10