Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Primer (2004)

I'll admit that I have two weakness. The first: Chocodiles. Those things are fucking delicious. The second: Time travel. (If you were going to say my second weakness was "connecting ideas" then you're an asshole).

Time travel as a subject (or a subsubgenre) has the power to elevate any material from boring to not-quite-as-boring, from romantic comedies to, uh, other things. Not to say there haven't been bad time travel films; there are at least a couple. Time travel has, however, yielded more benefits than detriments. It began a more mature era of Harry Potter films, the best action film ever made, an okay-by-me Van Damme film, a Terry Gilliam film that *gasp* made a profit, at least one good Supernatural episode with TWO DEAN WINCHESTERS, and in fiction, Steve Aylett's best book and the return of the good Palahniuk novel.

But until I saw Primer, I hadn't really seen ANY grounded science in the mix. Being a largely theorhetical/impossible concept, it was more of a speculative excuse for the average man to wield power, or fix his life, or have wacky time-related deaths-by-paradox. Primer is an injection of adrenaline in a long-atrophied muscle.

After a dark sign of things to come in the form of a gruff voice over coming in on the receiving end of a telephone line, Primer showers us all in a technobabble bath, one that doesn't actually stop until the movie ends. Nearest I can tell, most of the technobabble in the first 15 minutes is useless to the time travel element and functions only to establish that the two main characters and their friends test things in their garage and are attemtping to create something innovative and most importantly, profitable.

In what is perhaps unique to time travel films, there is nothing obviously wrong about the main characters' lives. They have well-paying jobs, one of them has a wife and a house, and they enjoy a steady social life outside of work. Once they stumble across the time travel formula, there's no real incentive to meddle with the continuum outside of 'Let's see what happens.'

At the risk of ruining the plot (the film is only 77 minutes long so any specific detail is dangerously close to spoling the entire thing), I will just say that 'Ho man do they ever see.' Er, 'What happens, that is.' Even Primer's trailer has to resort to being incredibly misleading in order to sidestep ruination.

Being totally in the dark to the film's nuances is part of the experience, or in my case, continuing experience. The issues in sound design and acting quality, largely due to the budget, are unfortunate but not totally damaging. I love it. Carruth has created a complex story that refuses to hold my hand or promise an easy solution. Good.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Darren Lynn Bousman is a goddamn cunt and I hope the guy from Buffy fucks him to death.

Whoa. I'd better start over.


There we go.

Thankfully, after somebody told him that he was the Joel Schumacher of the Saw franchise (and left it in the hands of probably somebody worse, I don't know), he decided to pursue other projects. Bousman's first choice was an off-Broadway opera (operetta?) where, if the movie is anything like the stage production, every lyric of dialogue is belted out in the same monotonous rhyme pattern and features lines like "Cursed by my genetics!!!" Did she mean genes?

What snagged me and near-filled me to the brim with hope is the plot: In a future where organ failure is an apparent constant concern due to pollution (message), healthy organs from the GeneCo are a recession-proof addition to the market. Payment plans are available for those with low-income, but if you miss a payment, they send the Repo Man to cut you the fuck open and reappropriate the liver, the lungs, penis and what-have-you.

It sounded radical! But Bousman's involvement in directorial capacity still incited some concerns; he's a child throwing dark watercolors at a canvas in a way that SORTA KINDA MAYBE looks like it would work when fitted into the full landscape. "Who cares though, just get the smoke in there and light it with some flourescents and we'll fix it later even though we probably can't. Put it on the fridge, ma." He can't even imitate a directorial style, so how in the name of Barny Juno can he carry his own film?

Answer: He can't, and probably never will.

The rigid driving force of any musical, follow me, is the music. Characters can monologue and converse and lament about how they are cursed by an entire scientific field -- it is all accepted if the music is adequate, better if it is good, best if the scenes themselves aren't treated like they are set to rules in actual theatres. Since Repo! fails effectively at all three, there is little that can be reappropriated. (And I read somewhere that Bousman did direct some Repo! stage performances... really?!)

The plot is pure convoluted Shakespearian tragedy that has been obsolete for a very long time, so very fucking long, I'm not kidding, I fucking mean it. If every character has to die, surely there are ways that aren't caused by LACK OF COMMUNICATION and INCESSANT BITCHING. I really do want to care about these people, and if they all deserve it, you're wasting my fucking time.

If not the story, the characters, the directing or the music, what then? ... Violence? Sure, who doesn't like violence. The thing is, gore with Bousman is plentiful, but never effective. Any makeup artist worth half his weight in Geldons can get the blood the correct color and skin the correct consistency, but if you treat these gifts like a chew toy, it will not come across. Violence is an involved and intimate practice, and in a film where the main character is opening people up and stealing vital components of their continued existence, often while they are still conscious, it should hurt to watch. Even in hyper-reality I can extend some empathy if the movie obeys its theme. Something that rips off Phantom of the Opera so heavily in that department, I should feel guilt directly after sympathising with the Repo Man. I do not.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is a masters course on what not to be, how not to act, and better than Bryan Singer could have ever taught you, how to not make a good film.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Duplicity (2009)

I'd like to briefly point out a small phenomenon that only I find interesting.

Billy Ray, a screenwriter skilled in writing quickfire military/industry-speak, shot a moderately-budgeted but kickass biopic, proving his ability to direct a film. His second film contained elements that made the first film good, but was mostly a palpable step down.

Tony Gilroy, another screenwriter skilled at writing quickfire military/industry-speak, also hit the streets with a great debut and proved his worth. His second film (not to ruin the forthcoming review) was also a step down, this time a considerable gap in quality to the first one. (Asidenote: weirdly, Gilroy and Ray both wrote the script for State of Play, which is exactly why I am avoiding it).

The above formula does not bode well for Rian Johnson, who parallels closer to Tony Gilroy only in that Johnson's second film is also 1) a con film, and 2) a comedy. But here's hoping the poor kid doesn't somehow reverse the prestige built by Brick, har har

Anyway, enough of that. Duplicity (by Gilroy, remember) begins with a 'years earlier' subtitle and since this is a spy slash con film, that means 'PAY THE FUCK ATTENTION' in my language. Note the location, the attitudes, the background characters, and Clive Owen's broken leg filling the frame. Note especially every word he says to Julia Roberts since this is their first meeting. This technique is taught at the David Mamet school of filmmaking, films that will pull a con on you WITHOUT YOU KNOWING YOU WERE EVEN WATCHING A FILM ABOUT CONS and the like. Hell, watch The Sting and you'll get it: collect the pieces, put them in order before the film does it for you and makes you feel like a mowgli.

The movie builds past the opening scene and wheels into the 'current time' subtitle with Clive Owen following some guy (take notes) and brandishing a small Rubik's cube (take particular note). He finds out that his contact is Julia Roberts, gets upset, and has a slightly-clever-yet-extremely-long verbal throwdown with her. They reluctantly decide to work together. Next, cue long expositional scene of what exactly they are working on: hostile corporate backstabbings over the secret formula to some miracle product (take a fuckload of notes). Clive goes home and the film reveals a not-at-all surprising plot twist and another tedious flashback ensues (take notes, just in case). In 'current time' Clive and Roberts put their plan into motion, attempting to get their hands on the miracle formula and sell it while the two companies sue each other into oblivion. Everything is going according to plan until Clive does something stupid and Julia gets angry, casting a small ineffective seed of doubt into the mix. Bad jokes about baldness. Another tedious flashback. Bad jokes about pizza. (Take notes out of habit). Some time passes and the climax happens, which without any reason to give a shit, resorts to loud music to increase the tension. The con fails... except that it doesn't. And then it does. OR DOES IT? Throw all of your notes away, they apparently don't mean fucking anything.

So... what just happened? Fucking shit happened. Some asshole orchestrated a con offscreen, before the movie began, used two unlikable spies as pawns to make some other asshole look like a mowgli for his own amusement. That's all. And what better way to tell the story than from the perspective of characters who have so little to do with the main action of the story. Like if R2-D2 and 3-PO never left the frame while Luke and Han shot down TIE Fighters nearby.

OR all of this was a metaphor for the inherent anger and mistrust in real-life relationships, that whether you're fucking in a hotel in an idyllic foreign country or spending a bunch of time stealing a secret formula by using the wire-tapped photocopier in an office building when you could have TAKEN A PICTURE OF IT WITH YOUR FUCKING PHONE THE ENTIRE TIME, as long as you're doing it together, that's what matters.

Never mind that Mr. and Mrs. Smith did that exact same shit, but funnier. And with GUNS.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Twilight (2008)

Math question: Is a vampire still a vampire if he 1) no longer feeds on humans, 2) is no longer killed by sunlight, 3) cannot shapeshift into any desired form, be it animal or swollen fog, 4) can still bite someone and not necessarily turn them into a vampire?

Twilight asks this question without ever asking it directly. It presents the term 'vampire' as a vague representation, a blanket that can cover whatever it wants, some of which are sexual aspects popularized by Anne Rice, others that are inventions of the author probably due to some unresolved and improperly tended fetishes.

In any art form, it is not a requirement for the material to conform to the formulas set by previous works. Isabella Swan, the main character played by Kristen Stewart who is for once not being terrorized in a house, arrives at a new school in the Pacific Northwest, pale, bulemic and smack dab in the middle of a painful 3-parent situation (how tragic). In spite of being crippled by what could be an obvious dramatic device, she has no problem making friends or attracting members of the opposite sex. She isn't bullied by teachers or her fellow students. Her father is the soulful, quiet chief of police, the furthest thing from an asshole or a creep. He buys Bella a truck and mostly leaves her alone, only attempting once or twice to connect with her.

Bella's first meeting with Edward (equally pale) is watching him rush out of class after she steps in front of a revolving fan. Other than this, there is no obvious indication that vampires are about to occur. The slow buildup to the revelation of a larger world underneath the normal one is actually (and surprisingly) well done. A rational, non-supernatural explanation is offered for every strange thing that Bella sees about and around Edward until he saves her from being crushed by a van. Then, it is only inevitable that she finds out: he is one of them 'pires.

It pretty much goes downhill from there.

Edward has heightened senses, super strength/speed, and a thirst for blood (which he sates by feeding on animals, calling the practice "vegetarian"). He sparkles in the sunlight like a Christmas ornament, but cannot shapeshift. He controls his filthy vampire urges enough to keep from biting his classmates. For fun, he plays vampire baseball with his family set to the inappropriate tune of Supermassive Black Hole by Muse.

It is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Other than struggling with this relationship that is a poorly-concieved metaphor for relationships IN THE REAL WORLD, Bella spends much of her time fitting into her new life in the Pacific Northwest, which is still the most interesting part of the film but which is now a flaw due to the bullshit surrounding Edward, his family, and the arrival of some one-dimensional neck-feeders. When shit hits the fan and the third act kicks in, it is abrupt, awkward, and resolved in ten minutes. Then a couple of more scenes happen and the movie finally ends with a criminal misuse of Radiohead's 15 Step.

There is also promise of werewolves at some point, because the marriage of those two has always worked out so incredibly well.

The math equation above is a simple one to solve, like when the CDC suddenly discovered that zombies can run. The question is no longer "Is a vampire still a vampire?" but "Is a vampire still interesting?"

... No.


Review: CJ-7 (2008)

Stephen Chow's movies have an odd comedic sensibility that I didn't notice before seeing CJ-7. Sure, I squirmed at how tough it was for the team to triumph in Shaolin Soccer and I cringed as the hero's face was punched (literally) into the ground over and over again in Kung Fu Hustle, but I didn't give those feelings much thought. These moments of sudden, grisly violence were spread well over the course of the stories, and seemed natural in their setting. My unease only indicated that the scenes were effective.

The plot of CJ-7 is something out of The Fucking 1980's; a poor kid who lives in a junkyard with his father finds a cute alien lifeform, and whimsical wackiness ensues. As if Chow watched E.T. and thought "I can do that!" Upon hearing the plot, my own thoughts were "Okay... but how will he fit martial arts into the story?"

After much time is devoted to establishing how miserable father and son are at both school and work, the kid finally discovers the alien. For reasons not indicated, the kid decides to hide it from his father. The father (played by Chow himself, by the way) finds it, but thinking it is a toy, then decides to test how resilient it is by twisting it in every direction and then hitting it with a frying pan while the alien screams in obvious pain.

It was here I noticed that something was very, very off.

Well anyway, with the ruse intact, the boy takes the thing to school to totally rock the socks off of everyone who has bullied him this far. The pins of Act I have been set up, and Act II is here to knock them down. Crazy, hilarious shit happens, the bullies get their comeuppance, the kid rights those who have wronged him, and finally gets a bit of happiness in his life.

And it's all a dream.

Oh, but not the alien part, mind you. The kid wakes up, happy and full of bushy-eyed hope, and actually takes the alien to school. This time, it goes horribly awry in such a way that is both highly predictable and palpatably painful. It is cruelty so harsh that it breaks free from the film and inflicts itself on anyone watching.

And suddenly it all makes sense. Chow in Shaolin Soccer trains like mad but cannot win until an element totally outside of his control comes in to save the day. Likewise, Chow in Kung Fu Hustle abandons a way of life that has caused him nothing but pain and misery... until the very end when it suddenly works. More than Chow's method of storytelling, this is his sensibility. So naturally a cute space alien is not the primary method for bringing happiness to a father and son. Happiness for Chow, it seems, only comes in the last five seconds, by something arbitrary or something that is taken for granted. The rest is rife with punching, squirting blood/shit, and pee jokes (and is thus hysterical). He didn't think "I can do that!" after watching E.T. He thought "Here's what would have happened if it were me." He must have had one fucked up childhood.

Things do ultimately work out for the best... sort of. The characters learn "valuable" lessons, but at dire costs to the cute, hapless schmoo, and not before father and son commit awful, despicable acts that aren't the least bit endearing. And one scene in particular, watching the son chase the alien around with the honest intent to kill, I couldn't help but want to do the same thing to Stephen Chow.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: Watchmen (2009)

How exactly does one adapt a complex, densly packed graphic novel from page to film while still retaining the themes that made it an incredible work, and at the same time pushing the limits of the medium in a similar fashion?

Zack Snyder's answer is: "By coldly transposing scenes directly into film form, inexplicably changing other details at random, awkwardly forcing in action scenes and highlighting them with gore that is inconsistent with the rest of the film, hiring a shitty actress to carry the crux of most of the dramatic dialogue scenes, and offering nothing of my own style other than the occassional speed-change and closeup of a broken bone. Did I get it right? Did I?"

Well, mission accomplished; Watchmen finally got made, after numerous failed attempts by more talented filmmakers (and Paul Greengrass). Snyder, still coming off of an exhaustless supply of adernaline from 300's near-constant stabbing and punching and never one to back down from an opportunity for a fistfight, begins the film with just that. An immediate problem occurs after it is over, when the subsequent scene goes over everything that just happened, containing no new information with characters who lack personality and only appear one more time, for two seconds. But who needs a concise film when you have an irrational sense of duty to the work you're stealing from?

There is no doubt in my mind that this is what the core issue is -- faithfulness to Alan Moore overrides the filmmaker's decisions (most, but not the decisions that involve making more action scenes). I understand the pressures of fitting so much into so small a container; almost three hours is the end result, and not much to consider or admire in that amount of time.

Watchmen suffers from a lack of clear focus. An opening credits montage does establish for newcomers that, yes, masked crime fighters did and do exist, and that what follows is a "what-if" scenario, where these heroes have been stripped of their nostalgia and outlawed in a world where their services are obsolete. Coming to this conclusion is work, however, as there is very little to be said about other masked heroes in this world. We know the fates of two. What happened to the rest? The flashbacks only provide a connection to The Comedian; they do not draw a coherent line to Present Day 1985. Too much is left unanswered.

Jackie Earle Haley, lovable psychopath extraordinaire, narrates passages of exposition from his journal, and after a seemingly brief investigation of the murder, disappears for a bit and is replaced by flashbacks of the surviving crime fighters that rarely illuminate much but contain one or two pieces of important information that could come at any time. In addition to being frustrating, it is exhausting to sit through, and coupled with inappropriate moments of slow-motion, the movie's pace grinds to a crawl, making the film less of a philosophical feast and more of an endurance test.

At least intact are Moore's characters, each representing a philosophical-political archetype wrapped in different forms of neurosis. Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II want normal lives, ones where they don't want or need to police an unstable populace, but cannot help but do so. Dr. Manhattan, like the universe itself, is largely indifferent and follows a path lived moment to moment; he does not understand or agree with human motivations/emotions. The Comedian is similar, but embraces his whims and instincts unquestioningly, finding nature's apparent amorality hilarious. Veidt and Rorschach each have a strict moral code, but differ in that Veidt is willing to sacrifice the few to save many, where common good is equal to how many of us survive. Rorschach's sense of justice extends past a threshold of what he views as evil, and deals with those evils in one manner: execution, on an individual basis.

It is enough that these nuances are visible. In these characters, one is asked to examine policies and how far to run with them, to find someone to agree with, or at the very least, relate to. Snyder and the screenwriters recognized this, I'm sure, but do little to provide a reality for them. The skeleton is visible, the vital organs are there, but there is no life to support. A larger world is implied but not created.

In 2005, there was another Alan Moore adaptation, V for Vendetta. A lot was different, a lot was changed by McTeigue and the Wachowksis, but nothing was missing. The theme is clear and beautifully stated, and like the graphic novel, it challenges the medium it presides in, with a clear, creative vision gleaned from an already creatively-executed work, and extending it far beyond and elimating much of the flaws and making it (crucify me) better than the graphic novel it was based on.

That is the primary reason for any adaptation. The idea that a movie that cannot stand on its own without in-depth knowledge of its source material is a flaw, and a major one, plain and simple. Nothing has been accomplished if what plays is a mirror, a mere companion piece to what one can watch and murmur "Hey, I recognize these scenes," and remember more meaning in them the first time around.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: My Bloody Valentine (2009)

There are films that attempt either greatness or the emulation of greatness, and there are films that rely on a tornado's ability to construct an airplane in the middle of a junkyard. There is a clear choice that needs to be made about this distinction. Is it worse if a film tries and fails? Is it better if one succeeds through no fault of its own? Such questions cannot thrive outside of speculation -- I don't care what the filmmakers themselves claim to have been "intending." The decision lies at ground zero.

My Bloody Valentine is one, by my reckoning, that does try. It unfortunately ends up failing quite miserably, but oh how I cannot help but admire the effort.

More shocking than the pick-axe to the back of the head that caused that one kid's eye to pop out of his socket is that there is some meat to chew here. There is a (mostly) logical progression of events. There are characters with actual motivations, personalities -- dare I say it --density. There is compelling character development. There are even some genuinely gruesome kill-shots, something I haven't seen in a horror film for half a decade. I'm even considering dressing up like the killer for Halloween and breaking lightbulbs with a giant pick-axe. WHAT ARE THESE FEELINGS?!!

Whew... got those out of the way. Now let's rattle off some flaws!

Firstly, the film isn't scary on any level. At best, it is as suspenseful as Ron Howard directing a thriller that isn't Ransom (i.e. not very). Secondly, the acting of just about everyone is horrendous. I mean it. It's like watching a bad stage production and squinting your eyes in embarassment, watching anything but the stage until whoever is speaking just stops. The dialogue, terrible but gasping for air, definately cannot survive. There are also moments of unforgivable horror cliches: namely, get the hot bitch naked moments before she is iced. Or characters making dumb dumb dumb decisions on where to run, what noise to investigate, how late in the game to alert authorities, etc. Worst of all, the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer (I won't ruin it, but it's easy to figure it out) is handicapped by a trump that doesn't make any sense whatsoever (think of the "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" episode of The Sopranos... perhaps I have said too much...). Basically, shit that has been present in the horror genre since its incept date, and shit that has, for some reason, refused to evolve.

So that's that. Beyond what is obviously bad and oddly worth paying attention to, the film is pretty forgettable. And while I do believe that it is better to try and fail, I admit that it is far more aggravating when that is the case. And for something that isn't good, in fact sucks, in fact that I hate, merits slide out of my face with ease. GRAAAAAAAAAAH.


[Yes, I saw it in 3-D. No, it did not help.]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Review: Friday the 13th (2009)

Michael Bay's Creatively Bankrupt Productions* strikes again with another remake/requel/restart/resurefire-way-to-make-money-by-swindling-newcomers-and-old-school-fans-alike, dropping into theatres like a lobbed sack of sweaty assholes.

The premise: teenagers arrive at the camp, Jason Voorhees kills them. That is all that anyone needs for a movie, right? Well, to complicate matters, one could begin by asking: Why do the teenagers go to the camp? They're growing weed there. Why does Jason kill? His mom told him to before she died. Why did she do that? The counselors were negligent and let him drown. Wait, Jason is dead? How did he come back to life? Uh... the mom might have been a witch or something. A witch? You have a prologue explaining their motivations but not the details behind their very existence? If you were a fan of the series, you would know the details. Yet... you created a prologue. Furthermore, you give the same information a second time through dialogue. The characters have to talk about something. Besides weed and fucking? I agree. Look, we wanted to put the title twenty-five minutes into the film. It's funny. If funny is a synonym for stupid. Hey, what's with all the questions, anyhow? I'm just trying to understand the rules of your fucking movie is all. So what happens next? Six weeks later, another group of kids go to the lake by the camp. To do what? Party. In the woods? In a country home. What's with the lulls in Jason's killing spree? If people can build houses and plant seeds for weed and not get killed, what makes the return trips so dangerous? Perhaps... Jason was sleeping sometimes. He's undead. Okay, then, sex is what gets his ire up. But Jason killed that one kid who was by himself, before anyone was even having sex. Then he doesn't have a motivation. He just kills. Whatever. These new kids, six weeks later, they're partying? With marijuana, I imagine... Yeah. And there's another one looking for his missing sister. She was with the previous group. Oh. So, do they help him? No way. Well, one does. But the leader of the group is an asshole, and the rest are so stoned that they don't bother helping. Why? Why what? Why is the guy an asshole? Uh... when they first meet, the one looking for his sister takes a long time at the register at a convenience store. Kind of a thin reason for the other guy to be a douchebag. Does this asshole die first? No. An inbred hick who masturbates, fucks mannequins, and grows weed dies first. That's where Jason gets the hockey mask. Is the douchebag the second one to die? No, his friend is. And then his girlfriend dies after water-skiing. Topless. You do realize that, since Jason kills indiscriminately, any scenes with nudity or sex are now pointless? So? Jesus... okay, they die, and then the douchebag finally dies? No. Good god, man, how long are you going to keep that piece of shit alive?! Almost to the end. We're killing off the comic-relief characters first. It's more dramatic that way. So, including the five kills at the beginning, there are a total of thirteen kills. That's kind of clever. Actually, there are twelve kills. The sister isn't dead. What?! How?! Jason keeps her alive. I'll think of some reason later. It doesn't matter. One more question. Who is the main character of this movie: the guy looking for his sister, or Jason? Hmmm... Don't strain yourself. If it's who I think it is, then there is no reason you need to devote so much time to these characters, most of whom go beyond being unlikable. And how long is this fucking thing? An hour and thirty-seven minutes. Basically, you wanted this film to be like torture. Nobody says anything interesting or intelligent, there is no clear reason for the things that are happening, the kills aren't creative and aren't even effective from a horror standpoint, and as a result of inept writing and filmmaking, there is no suspense and every second I spend watching this garbage is me wishing for Jason to slaughter everyone, and quickly. Welcome to Friday the 13th. You'd be a lot happier if you stopped asking questions. Go fuck yourself, I hate you.

It was god-awful.


*stolen from Kernunrex

Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: Quantum of Solace (2008)

The MGM James Bond series, since the first official film, has spiked and flatlined like a GUILT-ridden dollgirl in Trauma Center: Second Opinion, alternating between two set modes. It goes like this: restart the series with a new actor = put your balls on the table and smash em with a mallet; continue the series with the same actor = wade into the shallow end with your balls nowhere near the waterline; repeat. Think Indiana Jones on a longer timeline. More thoroughly talked about here.

Dr. No was produced with every penny in the bank riding on its success, and while the film painfully comes off as a product of its era, it manages to retain an air of boldness, however naiive, that what remaining originality mattered even in the face of financial ruin. And what the hell, it managed to be popular. GoldenEye and Casino Royale were made under similar conditions, at times when they owed nothing to previous entries or more importantly, no pesky ground rules to determine their behavior. The same cannot be said for the films in the series that followed them.

I suppose it is with an almost mathematical certainty that the second Bond film starring Daniel Craig sinks into the same muck that so many others in the series have (Tomorrow Never Dies, Licence to Kill, From Russia With Love to a lesser extent) and cater to the imaginary needs of an idiotic organism that wouldn't know a good film if it emptied its testicles of semen.

Spearheading the show this time is Mark Forster, a talented director in his own right but not adept at directing action films. This is not necessarily a bad thing (director Michael Apted managed to surpass seasoned action director Roger Spottiswoode in the Brosnan era), but it did, in this case, become one. How? I can only speculate.

Here is one such speculation:

Forster: Hey Barb, just finished shooting the film.
Barbara: Cool, Mark. Get a workprint assembled ASAP.
Forster: Can I use my editor?
Barbara: Sure whatever. Bye.
Barbara: Hey, Mark. Just saw the workprint.
Forster: Oh yeah? What did you think?
Barbara: I thought you were a "handheld" director.
Forster: ... Oh! Yes, my style is primarily handheld-
Barbara: Right so... the film as I see it isn't... handheld enough.
Forster: What? I-
Barbara: (to assistant) Who's that guy who edited the last two Bourne films? The one with ADD? People love that no-talent fucker, he makes the simplest scenes so incredibly hard to comprehend. Bring him to me. Bring him to me this fucking second. (to Mark) Gotta go. We'll take it from here.
Forster: (to a dead line) Oh... okay... (cries self into stupor/adapts World War Z)

It probably happened exactly like that. Fuck you, I don't need evidence.

Quantum's running time is 96 minutes, but it sure feels a hell of a lot longer. This phenomenon might be hard to quantify (har), given that scenes last for two minutes tops before wheeling on to the next exotic locale or poorly-shot action sequence at the exotic locale, each one another opportunity for the idiot intern who hangs out at the studio to show off his text Photoshopping skills. A lot of shit happens in a very short amount of time, because the film not only distrusts whoever is watching it but its own abilities to let a scene exist. It is constantly yelling "Shit, are two people talking?! Let's go! We have five more tributes to previous films to go!!! AAHHHH!!"

A common element in a Mark Forster film, one that actually managed to carry over into this one, is a strange seismographic connection to the main character's state of mind, where the cinematography, music, and editing change to reflect that, like films in the 1970s (fine, here's some: The Conversation, Klute, The Parallax View).

Nearest I can tell, Forster was allowed to do it twice this time. The first is the scene at the Opera, a scene so good that it frustrates me for being in a film that doesn't deserve it. The second is actually in the first ten seconds, a helicopter shot that slams into glimpes of a car chase, edging in on a closeup of Bond's eyes as the score slowly rises in the background and suddenly climaxes as everything goes to hard-to-see hell and immediately begins to suck in a very awkward sense.

The biggest failure is Bond's characterization. Casino Royale ended perfectly -- it bridges the gap between the sociopath and the proficient assassin. The barely-visible smirk on Craig's face as he stands over Mr. White doesn't project a man consumed with revenge. It projects not the embodiment of Bond, but displays Bond himself, a man who has earned his 00 status by a commitment to the mission, and not to his own emotions. Straight old school.

This has been reverse engineered for Quantum of Solace, in what I believe is a very misguided effort at matching what made Casino Royale good. Quantum's Bond ups the clumsiness; he evades both agencies, killing everything and everyone, fucking bitches and destroying property (I think that's what was happening), all for vengeance that he ultimately doesn't bother to carry out.

Even though this has happened before, many times, I'm incredibly bitter that it was allowed to happen again. For a brief, shining moment, Bond had returned. It was glorious. Now, he is gone again. Be it the fault of the director, the writer, or the producer... whoever is responsible, fuck them to hell for doing it.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Like digging a foxhole or a grave, starting a project is always the hardest part. Film in particular, all of the elements have to be present for the brief moments preceding, during, or shortly after the opening credits if the rest of the film is going to fly. Even the worst films can fool me for a bit if the opening scene is on-target.

Burn After Reading is a spy film that is not a spy film; moreover, it is a comedy that is not a comedy (not in the way that Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a comedy... more in that O Brother, Where Art Thou? was The Odyssey but in more ways was not The Odyssey). As such, Burn After Reading is tough to get into and even tougher to comment on.

A second viewing helps tremendously.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the film the first time around. I liked it. I also thought it was... weird. Weird beyond proper description. Weird even for the Joel and Ethan Coen. The rhythm of their films are on a wavelength that will bend and pulse whether a passenger is onboard or not. Burn's opening scenes are particularly difficult to attune to, not because they don't work, but because they take off and don't wait for my ass to board the train.

Making this even more challenging is the score. My god the score. Scenes are given an incredible amount of emphasis, with intensity matching the stomping drum beats and siren calls in The Dark Knight. It is so goddamn inappropriate that it deserves its own paragraph in this review. The fucking score... holy moly...

Most of the film's elements can be matched to the Coens' previous work -- the dialogue in particular is as quotable as ever -- but can the film as whole? I'm not sure. Burn After Reading isn't like Miller's Crossing and doesn't fold over itself repeatedly, nor does it walk through the minute details that make up the destruction of the characters' lives, like Fargo. It isn't as wild as Raising Arizona and it isn't as subtle as The Big Lebowski.

The film offers the information, quickly, and moves on. This happens, that happens, these people die, the film is over. In that sense, I suppose it is most similar to No Country For Old Men, in that it is so close to its theme that the film is an example of it. Shit just happens, so get over it.

While Burn After Reading falls far short of reaching that level of greatness, it is good. It is genuinely funny and highly unpredictable. And after a second viewing, I can now say for certain that I have regained my trust in the Coen Brothers' filmmaking abilities. I can't wait for the next one.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review: Be Kind Rewind (2008)

My first exposure to Michel Gondry was Volume 3 of his Director's Works set, thanks to a friend, Jimmy Holliday, whose habit back then was to put on music videos during mild hangout sessions to fill the gap between conversation lulls/bong refills. While both Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham serviced this idea quite well, Gondry's music videos made conversation an impossibility. Each video was a new idea, a new way to challenge and bend the medium. Watching was nothing short of magical. (Two favorites are Come Into My World and Let Forever Be).

It only took a short time for Gondry to mirror this magic in full-length features, decimating Spike Jonze's track record with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All was well and good with the world, but coming close to repeating that feat is hard for even Gondry to do.

Be Kind Rewind is yet another slideshow of Gondry's eccentricities; among other things, it's a glimpse into his playground, a bridge between the darkside of The Science of Sleep and the lightside of Human Nature, and a welcome area to dream. The techniques he uses are less like tools and more like toys, and wielded so expertly that the execution is practically a physical manifestion of his own imagination (techniques which more than resemble his video for Lucas with the Lid Off.)

Even given this, the film is never overly self-indulgent. His characters, in this oddball fucking universe he has created, feel very real, and even though the opposing force in the film is more of a bully than a villain, their struggle against it is admirable.

Having made some films after high school (bad ones), what Be Kind Rewind manages best is to capture the excitement of getting together with friends and working hard at creating something, and having a blast while doing it. While my friends and I never made an entire city block giddy with appreciative laugher (Be Kind's largest but only major shortcoming), we managed one or two films to be proud of.

That's what I love most about the director. Cliches and conventions can provide the techniques but aren't a requirement. Hollywood may have built the industry, but it does not have a monopoly on creativity or ingenuity. Michel Gondry and his films are living proof of that.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann's films usually require a degree of stamina to watch. Even with words set firmly on paper, a camera set firmly on a dolly, clips locked firmly on Final Cut's timeline, his films still manage to explode free in garish, technicolor nightmare. The actors speak at a superhuman pace around edits, post-production slo-mo/fast-mo, slide whistles and prat falls while bright, bright colors spill between the widescreen bars in random piles, and all the while good ol' Baz hides behind the red curtains pulling madly at levers and cackling like a lunatic, where no amount of backpedaling or polite harrumphing could kill his momentum.

This is not necessarily a compliment.

Australia begins like his previous films, around a simple framing device that predicts what is to occur in the next two hours. Not that I'm a particular fan of this method to begin with, but it is clear at the offset that this time around, it really doesn't work. The theme is immediately unfocused, the timeline is too narrow, and Brandon Walters's narration is completely and totally unnecessary, especially considering that the character isn't present for much of the interaction between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

This and increasing issues in execution stagnate the films pace. With the narration bookending dramatic moments and act transitions, there is nothing left to wonder about, nothing to capture the imagination save for the occassional well-filmed landscape. Luhrmann writes 1+2=3 on the wall and leaves it at that, and it's exactly as boring as it sounds. There is a mystery that is easy to figure out, a body count lacking emotional oomph, and a villain so one-dimensional that any suspense left within is dead on arrival.

The only portion of the film that remotely resembles an exciting adventure across the outback is the cattle drive, a sequence approximately 40 minutes long with frequent breaks in believability thanks to obvious green screen cutaways and a wholly preposterous deus-ex-machina. Problems abound, the same that plague the rest of the film, but still exciting, and the sequence steers closest to what I wanted from the film: two people from different worlds fighting for one cause and one purpose and managing to win without compromise or exception, and especially avoiding fighting with one another over NOTHING.

Luhrmann's brand of scattershot methamphetamine writing typically has a direction to vessel it safely to the endpoint -- something that is impossible in the old school style of Hollywood. His remake of Moulin Rouge! didn't emulate Huston's original. Why, suddenly, should this film? Why should this one require so little imagination and only enough fortitude to keep from leaving before the film is over?

I will say that, in addition to the acting of both Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, the mimickry of old Hollywood is successful, if only at its base definition. It compliments the past but does not extend or improve upon it. In the end, Australia can't even confidently stand up next to Baz's remaining filmography.