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The Grey (2011)
Exceptional Man v. Nature Film made for Adults
A film out of the Hollywood pipeline that seems like anything but. Brutal, gritty yet teeming with subtle ideas as big and compelling as the Alaskan vistas that provide the film's backdrop, "The Grey" is a film of barren beauty, suggestive, at moments, of the grandeur and mystique of a Tarkovsky film, and clearly intended for audiences more sophisticated than those Hollywood usually targets. The casting is terrific, a small group of actors offering up a set of superbly delineated characters and Neeson is in great form. Though still early in 2012, critics will be reserving a space for this title on their top picks lists. Simply, I was stunned.
Easily One of the Best of the Summer
Haven't been to many movies this summer, however, I caught Carriers this afternoon, playing to a near empty theater, and was very glad I saw it. The film deserves an audience. The themes - an end of the world plague that leaves 4 young survivors traveling the empty backroads of the US - may not be exactly be new, but it's done with exceptional style that elevates the film beyond standard issue horror. Eschewing gratuitous effects or overblown shock value, Carriers tells its story and builds strong suspense with fine pacing and some terrific ensemble acting. There's no big budget here, but the filmmakers have done wonders in creating a post-plague world eradicated of all but a few remaining inhabitants; those remaining cling to one another while fearing abandonment should they become infected. Human bonds are even more tenuous than life itself. The filmmakers explore fear here in a compelling, genuinely human - at times, even poetic - manner. Hope people see this.
Starship Troopers (1997)
A Masterpiece of Satire?
Starship Troopers is now 10 years old ... I've always admired the film since first seeing it in the theatre upon its release in '97. I should mention, standard sci-fi is not my genre of choice, though I'll certainly watch sci-fi movies if they've an interesting idea to offer. In any case, I recently got a hold of a Starship Trooper DVD and have been revisiting the film. I've come to the conclusion that the film not only holds up well (indeed, it seems almost prophetic as I watch it now after that eight year debacle called the Bush administration) it is also a remarkably witty piece with a powerfully satirical, highly critical subtext on the themes of militancy and fascism that ring ever more true and clear now. The film's critical perspective of film history, specifically the propaganda films of World War II which the film takes as its touchstone, provides a sly and clever commentary, if not deconstruction, of cinematic tradition that it rises above. It also, needless to say, succeeds wonderfully as an inventive action film, made with technical care and attention to detail, including the cheesy dialogue (The only good bug is a dead bug) and its B-list casting. Starship Troopers is an intentional simulation of an assembly line B-film, though the sensibility behind it, pure tongue-in-cheek, is anything but that of a B-film. An argument can be made it is, yes, a masterpiece, and worthy of canon status and certainly archival preservation.
Enjoyable, Provocative - Like Him or Not, W. is Us
Saw W in a preview last night and overall found it engaging, provocative and, frankly, a bit eerie. Of course, because Mr. Bush is still in office, watching re-enactments of critical moments in his administration, still fresh in our memory, has a quality of watching an SNL spoof; one is always aware one is watching actors, and very good ones at that, play the parts of principal figures on the Bush team, leaving a viewer continually comparing the actors' portrayals, make-up, etc, with the real life figures we know from the news. In other words, the film never completely transcends the spectacle of its simulation to feel seamlessly naturalistic. This is hardly a fault of the film necessarily, only the curious timing of its making and release here in the waning months of the Bush administration. (Had the film been made several years from now, no doubt audiences would bring a different. more relaxed, attentiveness to it.) I won't spell out my conclusions on Stone's version of Bush - that for you to discover - however, I will say it is fully appropriate we allow our private and public preconceptions of Bush the man to be challenged and examined. There is more to be said about the man than merely we like or dislike him. After all, we put him in office for eight years, and that says a great deal about us as a nation.
The Happening (2008)
Inventive Horror Film of Conceptual Originality and Strange Rhythms
There's something terrifically off-beat about Shyamalan's "The Happening," and perhaps the strangeness comes from the fact that its a horror flick made with a uniquely personal sense, a quality not found in the vast majority of assembly line horror pumped out of the studios into multi-plexes. No doubt this will displease some (or even many) conditioned by the crude, generic shocks found in standard-issue horror releases that strictly operate by the dopiest of numbers. That won't be found here. Indeed, there's something a good deal more delicate and thoughtful at the core of "The Happening," and those inclined to mull it over a bit will it find it rewarding. While the critical response, for the most part, has been negative, the real horror is the discovery of just how many film-illiterate critics are out there writing. Not one has recognized the film's unusual hybrid cinematic pedigree, most significantly Tarkovsky's "Stalker" and Hitchcock's "The Birds," of which "The Happening" is, in fact, a conceptual re-thinking of. I'm also very taken with the strange, irregular rhythms of the characters' dialogue and the timing of scenes - again, Shyamalan is clearly contesting the slick, overly-programmed artifice of horror genre films, though that's not to say the film doesn't deliver some good thrills - it does. So, bottom line, Shyamalan's films may not be doing as wellin box office terms, but he himself is developing into an interesting film maker with a point of view. I hope he continues in his maverick mode because God knows we seem to be doing everything we can to stamp that out in the US films. Hopefull, "The Happening" will be regarded with much more respect in the future. It is a worthwhile, original film - a rare thing in horror - and should be seen.
The Strangers (2008)
Effective at moments, otherwise crude and infantile
Stranger invasion is as old as the hills as a horror sub genre, and despite some effective moments in "The Strangers," nothing can conceal the clanking thumbscrew mechanics that churn the plot. Indeed, much goes bump (and whack and crack ....) in the night in this flick, and though the young director certainly has a gift for effective use of sound and even gins up a compelling image or two - our masked strangers effectively startle in their initial appearance and are quite unsettling - nonetheless, down to brass tacks, the story offers little other than the agonizing plight of a young couple brutalized in a remote country home by anonymous, faceless strangers, and that sure ain't news. Sure, the film delivers a few good scares, but the basic impulse behind the storyline is infantile, if not strictly by-the-numbers frights. What the director lacked was a compelling concept that examined the mystique of anonymous violence. Instead of opening it up and thinking it through, the director merely exploits it using the standard tropes of the form. But no amount of clever imagery can conceal the hollow thud inside. The problem with this film is typical of the problems with many of the standard-issue horror films these days: Directors do not seem capable of any original thinking that re-invents the genre. They can only make slicker remakes of what they - and we - have seen before.
The Golden Compass (2007)
A Movie that Feels Stripped of its Daemon
Oh, fer crying out loud! Golden Compass seems to have the look, the cast and the special effects down pat, but otherwise feels like a shallow simulation of the book. Weitz connects the plot dots (doing end runs around a few), then plows through in high gear. This is a movie, not a jaunt in a sports car! There's no emotionally-involved story telling here, and the audience feels no investment. A big, epic fantasy should have the roominess and luxury of a big, inviting easy chair - sit back, relax, and take it all in. But Weitz never stops to relax, nor seems to understand how to moderate the narrative pacing, nor find nuance or poetic subtlety in moments that allows the audience to reflect and connect - a dimension that is essential to the Pullman books. Jackson understood this all too well with respect to LOTR and achieved symphonic grandeur. But Weitz operates like a mere technician on auto pilot. He wasn't ready to take this sort of project on yet because he hasn't achieved the necessary artistry. Did no one at New Line understand what sort of property they were dealing with? And by the way, who was the fool that told Weitz he had to cram the picture into a two hour package?
30 Days of Night (2007)
Clever, Visually Inventive Horror Film
I ordinarily might have skipped a film like this there's enough lousy, third rate horror being pumped into the multiplexes these days. However, when I saw Slade's name under the directing credit, I thought differently and decided to give Thirty Days of Night a shot. Hard Candy, Slade's prior film, is a maverick work, unlike anything I've seen before. Certainly a shocker in its own right, Hard Candy is a marvelous original in the best, tough-minded pulp noir sense. Slade, working with but one set and not a pixel of CGI silliness, relied heavily on the acting strength of two terrifically well-cast principals to give Hard Candy the unique tension required to make it work - and it works. Slade not only got the performances he needed, he also demonstrated he can work effectively on a small scale, a sure sign of an exceptionally resourceful, inventive director. Thirty Days posed an altogether different challenge on a much larger scale; it's heavily atmospheric, with some big set pieces, and a big cast that battles through some frightening weather. Because of the perpetual "night" backdrop - a terrific idea, incidentally, for a vampire film - the visual palette is largely a grayish monochrome, set off with graphic touches of red and fiery oranges. This gives the film a moody, claustrophobic tone of growing dread that never falters and nor feels tedious to look at. If anything, it's hypnotic. 30 Days offers up some bravura visual moments - midway, there's a gorgeous, omniscient overhead tracking shot of the snowy town landscape stained with vampire carnage, and in the final sequence, the band of vampires stand clustered together watching as the town becomes engulfed in flames; both are brilliant bits of apocalyptic Gothic imagery worthy of a medieval Brueghel painting. While Hartnett, as the principal lead, provides the film's earnest, emotional core, his expressions filled with increasingly apprehensive flickers, quietly calculating the bleak prospect of survival he and the rapidly diminishing group of townspeople face, it's Danny Huston, as the lead vampire, who's over-the-top, chewing the blizzard-choked scenery and having a ball - or is it a snowball - doing it. (I'd hate to condemn as fine a character actor as Huston to type casting, but should Langella ever hang up the cape and fangs for good, Huston could easily pick them up.)Huston serves it up cold, meaty and raw here, and he's terrific to watch in what would otherwise be a throwaway role.
Incidentally, I should mention, the NYT did a genuine disservice with its review of "Thirty Days of Night." They sent in a third string reviewer who penned a smug, knee-jerk dismissal, and who clearly didn't know what he was looking at. Scott or Darghis should be sent in to re-review. Yes, Thirty Days is not perfect - there's some slipshod editing at points and Slade misses some great opportunities: the initial dialogue sequence between the Vampires - where we first get a good look at them and they are introduced as characters (not fast-moving homicidal blurs) is inserted haphazardly and without the proper dramatic build up, and Slade has a tendency to resort to chaotic, rapid cut editing in the action sequences, which merely translates as so much visual nonsense (The recent Bourne film suffered from this as well.) That may be fashionable in commercial action films these days, but Slade is smart enough to know better. All in all, though, Thirty Days is still a fine and worthy effort, and I think Slade has promise as an exceptional director and is somebody to watch in future.
Into the Wild (2007)
Lovely Film, but Have to Ask: Has Penn Absorbed the Lessons of Herzog?
Sean Penn has made a lovely film, probably the finest of his directing career. The casting is superb, with some especially fine work from Catherine Keener and an astonishingly moving performance from veteran performer Hal Holbrook, who doesn't leave a dry eye in the house and (no hype here) is a likely bet for bagging the Oscar in the supporting category. But the film belongs to the charming, charismatic Emile Hirsch who does a fine job embodying the film's free form, wandering - and ultimately reckless - spirit. On that note, I'll mention the uncanny parallels between "Into the Wild" and Herzog's "Grizzly Man," both films, based on true events, concerned with real life idealistic loner-nomads who find their untimely demise in the wilds of Alaska. McCandless' and Treadwell's stories deal with many of the same themes. Herzog, who has dealt with the themes of trial by will in the face of zealous individual idealism in prior films, knows this ground well, and viewed Treadwell with a dry, discerning eye, both bemoaning his tragedy while indulging little sentiment for Treadwell's quixotic, absurdly romantic delusion about his relationship to nature. Penn is too smart not to recognize these lessons, yet, a cautionary romanticism does creep into "Into the Wild" and the film can be seductive - beautifully seductive at moments. Though moved by this film, I am unclear how to come to terms with my ambivalence concerning McCandless' idealism. Granted, unlike Herzog, Penn is functioning as a narrative filmmaker, not a documentarian, hence has an obligation to render McCandless story with a compelling, fully dimensional depiction; any good film maker would recognize this task. But what is Penn's allegiance to McCandless idealism? It is not difficult to recognize the appeal McCandless' story might hold for someone like Penn, something of an idealist (if not activist) himself and clearly, this film is close to Penn's own heart. But I am unclear how Penn, as a maturing film maker, has come to terms with his own ambivalence on the limits of idealism and the seductions of its inherent fatalism. Perhaps future films by Penn will give greater clarity to this.
The Invasion (2007)
More than Meets the Eye - And a Decent Pop Corn Movie
Manhola Dargis, the NYT Reviewer, didn't really fully comprehend "The Invasion" with her bad review, and, most important, she overlooked something very curious about this film, namely, its presentation of the utopia theme. In this rendition of the body snatcher narrative, we've clearly lost the old cold war moorings of the 50s original and are dealing with something quite different here. Utopia has become a significant theme in academic and sci-fi writing recently, and this film has an eerie, nuanced take on that theme that I personally found curious. The film operates with an odd sense of irony, and the point should not be lost on audiences that the civilized world, now mainlining anti-depressants like there's no tomorrow (and which the Kidman character, as a shrink, prescribes) seeks the very sort of controlled, temperate solace the pod people promise to deliver. There is an allegory of self, ideology and utopia which this particular rendition of the pod people narrative delivers that I thought intriguing. The promise of Utopia may be snake oil - or snake slime in this case - but there's also the question of whether humanity is capable of the realization of utopia. Who is more worthy pods vrs. humans isn't as easily settled here as we might like to think. (And let's not overlook, we certainly see pod persona-as-virtue in our own culture. We may prize "podliness," to coin a phrase, more than we realize) In any case, this isn't your Grandpa's cold war allegory, but something else. And Dargis, who's a pretty smart lady, should have picked up on that. For all its technical and narrative faults, which Dargis makes sound much more damning than they actually are, all the same, Invasion is still worth a matinée. For a "B" narrative film, albeit with an A budget, there's more here than meets the eye - and of that which does solicit the eye, namely Ms. Kidman, well, she looks absolutely smashing. The lady can't help it. I'd be curious to know what Kidman saw in the early script that made her want to do it. Clearly she saw something in the original conception that was worth her time to pursue and she has her pick of projects. And some of that early promise, I think, is still to be found in what was delivered. Don't blow this one off.