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This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
There's a fine line between stupid and clever
The mockumentary is by this point a well-established genre, but today's faux-docs (often in the form of TV series like The Office) can often seem like ordinary scripted comedy where the characters occasionally talks to the camera. This is Spinal Tap, the film that really popularized the sub-genre, goes to great lengths to mimic and parody the documentary form: quick cuts, nonsensical asides, an awkward director occasionally stumbling on camera, no real narrative direction until the final act, and a lot of ugly people struggling to say something meaningful.
Of course, the main thing that makes This is Spinal Tap a classic is that it's incredibly funny. The good-natured but dim musicians of the titular band are less a parody of rock stars than an absurd band of characters thrust into semi-fame. The band's fictional history, complete with flower-child flashbacks and a long line of dead drummers, is the richest vein of comedy. A few of the movie's gags have been overexposed through endless repetition (call it Monty Python syndrome), but there's a lot of clever comedy that still resonates. Reiner and screenwriter Christopher Guest are capable of both broad, goofy comedy and understated bits that only the attentive will catch.
There are probably some points on which you could critique This is Spinal Tap -- the characters are hard to distinguish until about halfway through, and there is the above-mentioned lack of narrative -- but the whole picture is so shaggily charming that it's hard not to smile and laugh along. If you haven't seen this, it may be the best use of 80 minutes of your time around.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014)
Nick Cave is a pretty cool guy
The world abounds with concert films and other documentaries with no greater ambition than following a famous person around for a while. These films are usually easy to put in the "superfans only" category. But maybe that wouldn't be the case if they were more like 20, 000 Days on Earth. All I can say is that, as someone who has one Nick Cave album but no vast devotion to the guy, I was entertained throughout.
Part of this is simply the beauty of the images -- the directors make even the most mundane scene stun on the screen. The film takes place across one mostly ordinary day in Nick Cave's life, purportedly the 20000th, and much of the runtime is taken up by fascinating conversations Cave has with friends and collaborators. There are a lot of stagey scenes that don't hide their constructedness, such as a filmed therapy session, or a meta- cinematic moment where at the behest of the film's producers Cage goes through old pictures that will soon become part of the opening montage. And then there is the obligatory concert footage, shot in a dynamic fashion that manages to pick up all of Cave's subtle interactions with the front row and the looks of desperate adoration on the audience's faces.
All of this would be for naught if Cave wasn't a fascinating subject. He plays the brooding poet here, providing ominous narration throughout the film, but there are also humanizing scenes where he watches TV with his sons or grumpily bosses around a children's choir (one of the more surreal moments here). It may be more charisma than intellect, but damn if I couldn't listen to Nick Cave talk for days. For all the directorial skill brought to 20, 000 Days on Earth, its greatest virtue may be in simply allowing us to experience two hours of Cave.
Stay out of the swamp
Before Sharknado, before Sharktopus, and in fact not involving a shark at all, there was Hatchet. If you can't make a good movie, the thinking goes, why not make an intentionally bad one and hope that camp value carries you to cult classic status? Sometimes this works, but Hatchet is mostly a misfire.
The movie is a horror-comedy, more in the Scary Movie vein than the Edgar Wright one. As such, we have about forty minutes of painfully unfunny and mean-spirited humour before the killing starts, with a lot of racial and sexist stereotypes. The soft-porn star with delusions of grandeur is probably the best character, which isn't saying much. Most of the characters' actions are inexplicable even once you realize they're all dumb as a rock. It's not pretty.
When the blood starts flowing (and spraying, and gushing), Hatchet edges closer to being watchable. There's a lot of enjoyably over-the- top gore, and a few moments of black humour that actually work (including the final stinger). If Green had played the material straight, this wouldn't have been a great movie, but it might have been an inoffensive one. In the end, though, it's hard to care whether these scatological doodles of people will survive. Even horror nuts will probably come away from Hatchet disappointed.
Man, this is the weirdest adaptation of A Rose For Emily I've ever seen
A woman with a secret meets a man working at an out-of-the-way motel. He is neurotic but charming, and the two of them decide to eat dinner together. She learns about his problems getting out from under his domineering mother, and encourages him to stand up for himself. And then he stabs her to death.
Psycho works so well not because it is gory or innately terrifying but because it uses the familiar tropes of romantic comedy to set up a string of horrific murders. It suggests that the ordinary people we like or even feel sorry for are just as dangerous as the ones we instinctively fear. Norman Bates' twisted psyche ties together love, violence, and the Oedipal complex -- Hitchcock's favourite themes, perhaps never realized so well.
I've always been something of a Hitchcock skeptic, and Psycho contains its share of the overcomplication and affectedness that often dogs his work. There's a lot of glut here -- the whole plot line of Marian stealing the money, the tedious investigation sequence after the first murder, and the clumsy exposition that puts everything in a neat little box at the end. If Psycho is great, it's not because of Hitchcock but because of Anthony Perkins, who makes Norman Bates somehow pitiable and terrifying at the same time. The scenes he shares with Janet Leigh are captivating, and more than make up for the less memorable material surrounding them.
Psycho may not live up to its reputation, but it's still well worth a look. You won't get a more pure exhibition of Hitchcock's obsessions than this, and you're not likely to see a better performance anytime soon.
A delirious rumination o nature and sexuality
Walkabout takes a premise that brims with condescending racism and Oscar-bait melodrama: a pair of white Australians are lost in the wilderness, but saved by a silent and resourceful Aboriginal, who teaches them the ways of nature and leads the young woman to a sexual awakening. It doesn't so much escape from these trappings as sweep them aside by making the whole narrative elliptical and bizarre, more reminiscent of a heat-drenched dream than a realist narrative.
Roeg's visual gifts are the main attraction here, from the dissonantly- edited montages to the brutal close-ups of natural life. Walkabout is not a film that asks you to sit back and admire the beauty of a natural vista, but rather one that rubs your nose in the violent struggle for survival that is the wilderness. Jenny Agutter manages to wrench the viewer's attention away from the bizarre visuals, with both her beauty and her strangely detached air. David Guilpilil's Aborigine does certainly fall into the "noble savage" archetype, but there are some moments in the film which suggest that this too is an illusion.
Walkabout is a film that at first seems instantly dated, but then suddenly becomes too strange to fit in comfortably with any time period or movement. For fans of experimental cinema, this is a must-see.
Squeal like a pig, etc, etc.
Deliverance is one of those movies that's defined by one scene (you probably know the one) in a way that really doesn't do justice to the film as a whole. Its central thematic concern is the changing relationship between the urban American and the wilderness. Deliverance smartly makes its protagonists Southern urbanites to mitigate the kind of cultural biases that a story about murderous hillbillies calls up, although it's still not exactly a positive portrayal of the Appalachians community. As much as our quartet of hikers profess a love of nature, their relationship with the interior is profoundly antagonistic, a mixture of antagonism and a desire to conquest. Their interaction with the locals is a synecdoche of the larger geological transformation hanging over the whole film: the destruction of a complex wilderness to meet the water needs of growing cities.
What's so refreshing about Deliverance is that it flatters absolutely no one. Burt Reynolds plays a primitivist alpha male, a role he would spend the next couple decades misinterpreting, and while his steely nihilism is attractive at first he is ultimately rendered useless. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox are buffoons of entirely different stripes. Jon Voight plays a civilized man whose descent into savagery is never made heroic. Despite being famous for a scene of violence, Deliverance never revels in its depravity in the same way that some of its contemporaries do. These characters have some surprisingly philosophical debates, debates that are ultimately rendered meaningless as they scramble for pure survival. And as for the much-vaunted interior, it's represented by a pair of rapacious monsters who are just as intent on reducing people to animals as the city-dwellers are.
John Boorman is a competent director but has trouble livening up the scenes that take place outside of the main action. The opening dueling banjos scene is brilliant, and basically sums up the entire film, but the initial rafting and camping is a slog and the epilogue stretches on too long. The lack of strong direction stops Deliverance from really being among the elite of the New Hollywood films, but it's a respectable entry into that tradition nevertheless. In terms of both its politics and its art, Deliverance captures a moment in time that was already vanishing, and does so in vivid and unforgettable fashion.
The fact that this was a commercial success tells you everything you need to know about Japan
House is one of the few movies, alongside the films of Jodorowsky, that are absolutely as weird as their reputation suggests. Ostensibly a horror film, House is a jumbled mixture of experimental art project, schoolgirl exploitation, absurdist comedy, and slasher flick. So many weird visual effects and choices pile up on screen until the movie becomes both impossible to take seriously and absolutely beautiful.
The plot, which is actually fairly easy to follow, sends a group of seven easily-stereotyped teenage girls to an old woman's haunted house in the countryside, which of course begins to kill them off one by one. It takes a while to get to the horror elements, with the first half hour or so being an equally bizarre take on a fluffy schoolgirls-on-holiday story. Even once the bodies start dropping, nothing that happens is really frightening so much as it is strange and uncomfortable. House also gets credit for having an essentially all-female cast (eat your heart out, The Descent).
Subtextually, this one is all about relationships among girls and women and the need to move to gradually more mature ones. The character development is all about the lead girl accepting her new stepmother, which could be really boring. But the relationships are all rendered in a distinctly sapphic, and hence incestuous, way. So a wrote lesson about family togetherness becomes something much stranger and more sinister.
I feel like I've used some variation of "strange" too many times in this review, but that's just what House does to people. There's no way to really describe it without watching it. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but I guarantee that you won't have seen anything like it before.
The Tree of Life (2011)
All the history of life has lead up to Sean Penn staring moodily into space
First things first: The Tree of Life is devastatingly beautiful, with the cinematography making the film's natural landscapes and beautiful actors truly shine. This in itself makes the film watchable, and perhaps even worth watching. But for me good movies aren't just about pretty images, but about ideas, and while The Tree of Life certainly has ideas, they aren't quite as deep as Terence Malick probably thinks they are.
Although there are flashes backwards and forwards, the bulk of this film deals with a young boy, Jack, coming of age in 1950s suburban Waco, Texas. From the start, everything is presented idyllically, with endless scenes of a smiling Jessica Chastain frolicking in the grass with her young boy. Was anyone's childhood actually like this? Later, when things start going terribly wrong, the film is similarly unconvincing. This is a film that means to say a lot about human development, but it completely fails to capture the everyday triumphs, tragedies and tedium that defines childhood as well as adult life. This isn't a realist film, but its insistence on hyperbole mutes the effectiveness of any point that could be made.
The Tree of Life's central conflict is Jack being pulled between the influence of his different family members, who are all gendered archetypes: the hard-but-secretly-loving father, the naively-kind mother, the traumatically dead brother. Malick wants to tell a story about family breakdown that serves as a metaphor for essential questions about how to live, but the problem is that this is a story and a message that we've heard many times before. In addition to the stereotypical characters, the thematic contrast between peaceful benevolence and hard- nosed realism is one that echoes the same themes of every warmongering political speech of the last century, themes that ignore that peace is usually the most truly difficult and most truly pragmatic choice. (The Waco setting and the father's military job makes a political reading easy to grasp.) Malick reaches for the universal, but comes back with the generic.
The Tree of Life has its pleasures: the gorgeous cinematography mentioned above, as well as the great performances by Pitt and especially Chastain, imbuing stock characters with real life. At times, particularly in the second half, the film can be gripping in a queasy sort of way. But considering its ambitious, as well as its massive hype, I couldn't help but come away disappointed.
Let's be honest: who isn't in love with their computer?
From the trailer, I expected her to be a twee beta-male romance movie that would also act as a marker of our contemporary self-satisfied liberal consumerism. And it is all those things, but somehow it manages to be pretty good as well.
Her is the story of a lonely guy, played by a hipster-mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system. From the opening scene, set in a business that writes "genuine hand-written letters" for other people, Her raises the question of how possible it is to form genuine human connections in a world full of artificial sentiment and consumable emotion? Rather than picturing the dystopia as a world of emotionless logic a la Orwell and Huxley, Spike Jonze imagines it as a world full of hollow feeling. In this setting, why not fall in love with your computer?
Her is a movie that's all about contemporary technology, but manages to avoid either condemning or praising it. Technology in Her is something that can replace human relationships, but something that can also enhance them and lead to new modes of being. The ending suggests that the world we are heading towards may be impossible to even comprehend using our contemporary modes of thought, let alone judge. Maybe our emotional attachments, the overwhelming life narratives we form out of primal lusts and similarly base emotion, are just a primitive phase in human evolution. These are questions that the film raises, but never offers a real solution to.
With that said, the genre of transformative romance is perhaps not the best metaphor for the coming technological singularity. This is one of those movies where women are defined entirely through their relationship with the male protagonist, and reflect little more than his own potential and development. As some critics have noted, it's a bit like 500 Days of Summer if Zooey Deschanal was an operating system. As such, the actual conversations and interactions between Theodore and Samantha are fairly dull.
When Her film gets away from its romantic framework, it becomes a lot more interesting -- perhaps even great. It reminded me frequently of Synecdoche, New York, with its shifts between surreal humour and broad but powerful philosophical inquiry. Her is also visually beautiful, and Jonze has done a great job imagining a future in which the aesthetics of Apple and Google have taken over the world. It's the kind of science- fiction which feels neither ridiculous nor generic, and for that Her deserves attention despite its flaws.
Dip huet seung hung (1989)
Nothing witty here... this one is just great
From the plot outline and the film's immediate aesthetics, you could be forgiven for thinking The Killer is just another 80s cop thriller. But there's something about the film that both perfects and transcends that genre -- while it hits all the beats of a thriller, there's a kind of mournful and contemplative tone that makes it impossible to really be thrilled by the violence that explodes across the screen. Instead of taking pains to guide the viewer through the plot, Woo lets most of the details and character motivations take place unnoticed in the background, creating a sense of unmoored and directionless violence enveloping the world. This is especially true of the daring and unforgettable opening scene. The heroes, if they can be called that, are full of remorse and regret, but are unable to do anything but stumble forward bleary-eyed into another shootout.
And yet it's also impossible not to be thrilled by the action. I've always been somewhat bored by gunfights in movies, especially when compared to the bodily performance of a martial arts showdown or the spectacle of a sci-fi battle. But Woo's gunplay is just as kinetic and brilliant as it's famous for, playing fast and loose with probability and physics in order to create a breathtaking ballet of violence. He also shows a hand for comedy at unexpected moments. So The Killer has its aesthetic pleasures, which are necessarily guilty ones.
This is the tension that most action films struggle through -- our reluctance to endorse violence and our inner desire to see it play out. Usually you just get mass carnage tacked onto a superficial anti- violence message, or incoherent speeches about "fighting for peace". But Woo presents the problem for us in full -- the beauty of violence, the horror, and the inescapability. It's ultimately a pessimistic message, and not one I entirely agree with, but in the world Woo sketches it's more undeniable than gravity.