Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

There is a strange Soderbergh parallel here, more than this movie is an Ocean's 11 clone with impossibly more delightful characters and an actual confrontation with Role and Consequences. It is somewhat of a reawakening for the director after having a rough go of it with production and execution in two different films. I think he decided to finally start yelling at people to get his shit made the way he wanted it. GOOD. Even if Anderson was confined to only using a string of exclamation points, he managed to pull together an excellent, highly unpredictable cauldron of stop-motion delight that incorporates all of that early-career magic with the newer strictly storybook style, every new scene packed tight with world-building set pieces and quickfire zingers. Even the characters are wonderful, despite having Noah Baumbach's name attached to the script. We're back in country western territory, put on your bandit hat.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Keep the rocket sled, get rid of the fuel and the runway. Place in an unnecessary flashback in the center of the dirt path that was originally meant to function the same way that Hotel Chevalier did, and what have you got? A new ride! A somewhat boring, unsatisfying ride. Anderson already brought us the Stumble. Now he brings us the Disappointment, and a really frustrating one with how close it is to being good. You don't have to break the entire thing and reassemble from scratch, per se. Just... remove major sequences. That's all!

Roman Coppola provides an element that, I imagine, no matter what his character surrogate says, is autobiographical. Seems like the Coppola brand is to portray affluent, incestuous families who are so far up each other's asses that they are the ones creating their own hell. He also brings another oddity in a Wes Anderson film: parallel dialogue. Characters running two conversations at once in a scene way too early to call for them: the scene where we first see the brothers interact. And what could be a newly formed habit from The Life Aquatic, scenes stick around past the punch line and linger in the awkward moment. This is why the jokes work in the trailer and don't in the film.

As with Rushmore, the title is a mislead. We don't spend the entire movie confined to a train, only about half, losing out on what I can only imagine is a bunch of Wes Anderson style stratagems and characters following a strict itinerary. Though I'm not sure the same metaphor can apply... Is The Darjeeling Limited confining the characters to their own behavior? A train is on rails but can get lost! They must go off the rails in order to be truly found! Eh.

The real ending of the movie is the funeral scene, but for some reason we still have half an hour to go, jibbiting around with the mother as though we were waiting for that reunion all along. Working against the obvious luggage metaphor, the brothers don't abandon their mother in the same way; they have to be betrayed by her just one more time before they can move on, far less of a potent closure. I know the final shot states that they all finally trust each other, but how long after the safari ends before they relapse into their original behavior?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Well, the sophomoric slump had to come sooner or later. We are treated to the usual Wes Anderson delights -- kickass music, real honest-to-god dialogue zingers, visually stunning staging, fascinating characters, sudden kinetic energy in an action sequence, a heartbreaking finale -- in a movie that doesn't quite deserve them. Overpowering its strengths are some major weakness. Scenes lack rhythm and don't connect to those around it, and cutting between a joke that actually works and the scene that follows it is jarring. Some scenes exist for seemingly little reason, lacking a strong button to justify them. We have some questionable line delivery from Bill Murray, an annoying affectation from Cate Blanchett, and Owen Wilson lacks the chops to make his character anything other than bland. Not even Willem Dafoe can save us.

Finally, I'm not so sure the Henry Selick sea aesthetic works. I've been fighting with people over this since the movie came out and have not gotten any headway in the argument. "It's distracting and it looks fake," isn't precise enough of a complaint on my part... I think it's that the characters in the movie are in on the joke? Telling Zissou his movies look fake (where, in the reality of the script version, they probably mean the staging or something) and are then unable to see that the sea looks fuckin weird until the very end dilutes the artistic choice. Their reasons for disliking Zissou could begin and end with "He seems like an idiot and he got a man killed." The end shot of the Jaguar Shark then means that it is the sea that is cold and cruel, and Zissou understands it. Not: "Oh, I guess your films told the truth all along."

You had the toughest of all acts to follow, and you made it even tougher by choosing to work with Noah Baumbach, who has made a career out of inflicting characters' shitty attitudes upon audiences everywhere and is probably to blame for everything else I hate. In spite of that, a Wes Anderson movie manages to happen. Somewhere in the back.

Review: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Pulp Fiction of Wes Anderson's career. It's like Rushmore, only more so. It's a photo album, a simulation of nostalgia filled to the brim with interesting characters, stunning tableaus, and gags that stick every landing. It's a story a relative tells you, a portrait of a family in the twilight of their success whose reasons for disliking one another are unfortunate, yet understandable, finally satisfying when the rifts are closed. Anderson weaves gold, mixing the mostly comic with hard-hitting drama(some real-ass motherfucking shit!), spinning an economy of vital information perfectly built to an emotionally devastating moment in an ambulance. This film can be about everybody. Life is mostly funny, mostly tragic, and we can take any of it. All of it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: Rushmore (1998)

We should give all aloof academics the job of writing a Titty Comedy. Shenanigans would turn into Overachieving in the Wrong Areas, Conquest wouldn't be as important or satisfying as Making Amends, Juvenile Jokes would be sucker-punches that take active parts in the plot. Comedies could be, yknow, consistently delightful. In fact, with all of the fun you have watching it, it's easy to miss that the second act, the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, takes up most of the movie. Like he did in Bottle Rocket, Anderson plays with storytelling structure, speeding up the fun parts and slowing down the painful ones. He isn't afraid to make us watch Max spiral out of control in procedural detail, meanwhile jetting through the fun at the school in montage and then kicking Max out. The toil is so long that the resolution gives you permission to breathe again.

The title of the film ends up being sort of a mislead; it isn't about a school any more than Moby Dick is about a whale. As the characters helpfully state towards the end, it's the Thing You Think You Live For. It's the Dream.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: Bottle Rocket (1996)

You could construct a pretty good view of the 90s using Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Wes Anderson. They even make a nice triumvirate of Rock & Roll, Country Western, and Punk Rock. If Tarantino makes films about Rebels (Rock & Roll), Anderson makes films about Losers (Country Western). This would leave Smith, who, of course, makes films about the Rebel Loser (Punk Rock). Anderson's losers in Bottle Rocket possess potential energy with no direction and wield no discernible skills. They are "innocents" with a love for diagrams, just enough of a support system to be dangerous to bystanders, and who, maybe, have seen too many movies. They could have been played by 12 year-old actors.

Much of the film is air, a two-part joke with a large subplot sitting in the middle to facilitate a feature runtime. It would be more predictable if it ran the tropes at a constant speed, like most other films, but Bottle Rocket is variable. It gears up, pumps the brakes, then floors it. Its characters and its rarity (read: its charm) save most of it, but let's face it: this shit be jagged, bro. These are humble beginnings.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Inception (2010)

Time to make good on that sweet, sweet Dark Knight money and spend studio equity on the riskiest of all ventures: a smart action film. Something genuinely exciting, thought-provoking, and emotionally affecting. Something engaging. Something visually stunning and mentally stimulating. In short, something rare.

It could be the film that Christopher Nolan has been building towards all along. All of his usual tools are there -- objects, ticking clocks, The Plague on Thebes is You -- now with a budget large enough to fold cities and rotate hallways. The usual mistakes are there too, as though he refuses to learn from them. Motivations are stated, not shown, and as airtight as the mechanics behind the heist, the excuse for it is flimsy if you look at it too long. There are times Inception could benefit from slowing down (some "Quiet Time" to Super Bunnyhop) and others where we straight-up pause the momentum of the heist to get through some vital information about the dead wife, information we could have learned in that memory elevator ride. And at one point was the story going to be told out of order? Is that brief flash-forward in the opening from a previous draft? Jettisoning a puzzle box in favor of a triple-layered action scene is probably best.

Movie's great, I don't care what Rick & Morty says.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Review: The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige is less of a tale of revenge and more of a love story that expresses itself through sabotage and violence, where a goal of supremacy is so seductive that one magician lives half of a life and the other forgets quickly the tragedy of his wife's death and refuses to hear Michael Caine screaming the solution to the trick halfway through. And though we yearn for it, because think of the tricks the "two" of them could perform, our two romantic leads will never come together. This story is told through three layers of narration, two diaries and what we can assume is Caine's final assessment, and its success is the kind you only see in novels, rarely in film. It's... "the greatest trick I've ever seen." If magic is a lie that everybody knows about, this is something else. A movie about the lifelong desire to perform miracles manages to exist as a miracle in its own right. It is one hell of a breathtaking ride, both inspiring and suffocating. You will never do anything this good in your life, and Christopher Nolan might not either. What a gift.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Hooooo boy, there's a new least favorite Nolan Batman in town. Remember that whole thing I said about 'distance'? Its harshest lesson lies within a movie you thought was good, not great, and finding out much later that you were sorely mistaken. I owe a very small apology to Batman Begins.

We pick up seven years after The Dark Knight, a timespan too short and a movie too early. Batman hasn't appeared since that whole Joker incident (??) and after a brief shame-explosion directed at Nolan's cancelled Howard Hughes project, he and Goyer cut up select pages out of The Dark Knight Returns and try to fuse it with sequel requirements and some shockingly terrible instincts. A world where everyone seems to know Batman's identity, where a magic rope can cure a broken back, where Bane inexplicably is political mastermind as well as a brute, where we spend too much time on an ancillary character we don't like and don't care if he gets redeemed in an already crowded script. Where scenes are interesting one time only.

Those who thought the second Batman went too far and indirectly resulted in an actor's death are in luck: this film takes no risks. Gotham isn't left out in the cold for too long, Batman's fans are numerous in spite of the last film ending with a different assertion, the opportunity to kill Bruce Wayne is not taken. "We couldn't get the actor playing Two-Face to return, but don't worry, we have something just as good: a note!" Nothing offensive happens, therefore nothing exciting happens (unless you, like me, were offended by Levitt accidentally killing a guy with a ricochet and then throwing his gun away... the fuck?) Even the execution of these simple story tasks feel like they were done from someone yawning at the wheel. Nolan has been taken to task previously for not being much of an action director, and this film provides the perfect ammunition for that theory. Sparks go off when guns aren't pointed at them, a motorcycle chase somehow lacks kinetic energy, the minimal effort of one-punch knockouts, Hathaway nowhere near able to break that prisoner's hands, and -- dear god -- keep your eyes on the two leads and away from the crowd of Pennsylvania amateurs playing pretend in the giant brawl.

At least there's the skeleton of a great story in there somewhere. Peace as complacency is a fertile theme -- crime can bide its time while you get old and weak, or like they say in The Wire, "Nothing kills cops more than boredom. Make it boring out there." There are select moments that succeed on an emotional level, but all of which belong in a better film that you can easily write in your own head.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review: Insomnia (2002)

Nolan hits it big and the proving grounds are another sunny, noir-ish thriller with a huge star at the helm. Luckily for all of us, he pulls it off with great skill, making a beautiful setting feel ominous, turning sunlight into an oppressive overlord, keeping most of the complex themes of the original intact. He even managed to fit in the same question from his previous films: "How good are you, actually, at doing your job?" A lesser helmsman would find some way to soften Dormir's corruption, scenes of ends justifying the means. Instead we get small glimpses of only Dormir's crime, in the form of fast cuts that keep him awake at night. His prison is one he has built for himself (again!), one that handicaps him and renders him outmatched by someone who can hide in broad daylight. Each route becomes increasingly complex and impossible to escape with a zero-sum. It will end in a stalemate, the killer will get away with it. Our main character is not the hound, he is the fox. It may even be an unpopular opinion but I think the film is better than the original. Perhaps its only edge is the ambiguity of the climax, which this version drops in favor of a clear winner. Eh, sometimes your voice cracks.

Review: Memento (2000)

My love affair with Memento extends all the way back to the year 2000, where Entertainment Weekly's review of it began with the headline "Cool So is Thriller This" and a rave review and an A+ ranking followed. I remember there was also a website,, that offered an extended glimpse into Leonard Shelby's universe through newspaper clippings and mysterious Polaroid photos. So hopefully you'll understand and forgive the slight bias. The movie is rad. I love it when style and content work together. Besides having a pretty kickass story, I don't think there is, currently, a better use of non-linear editing structure. Two different timelines run parallel, one running backward and one running forward (and sure, a third that takes place way before the movie began). At first they seem like independent moments in the main character's life, until slowly, creepily, they begin to share similarities. The approach is not only novel (as in Pulp Fiction, Following), but symbolic of Shelby's mental state. We are the main character, and what the hell were we doing two minutes ago? As the film goes on, the implications of Leonard Shelby's crusade become clearer. "How long have I been doing this? Is winning impossible?" It isn't easy to pull off the Oedipus ending, especially in a gimmicky small budget thriller, but goddamn does it ever. This makes the re-watches a markedly different experience. The first time is a roller coaster ride, every time afterwards is a depressing character study. We watch a man construct his own prison, his own hell, dutifully performing a job that he will never finish.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: To the Wonder (2012)

Imagine you are Terrence Malick. All of your films thus far have centered around some large event (murderous spree, The Depression, Guadacanal, Pocahontas, all of fucking Creation) where you can hang all of your overindulgent shots of nature and whisper poetry into our ears. The inventor of the steadicam is screaming in the background "What hath I wrought?!" but you ignore him because it's already time for your next movie! What now?

Maybe you shrug and say "I guess I got divorced once..." and five seconds later, you deem that worthy enough a concept for a feature film. Why not try nothing at all for the framework this time around? Uh-oh, the boring two-thirds of your last movie centered around your memories, so perhaps there is enough room to add a B Story of a priest questioning his faith. Will that make the movie too high octane? Who are we, Christopher Nolan?

Where once you had your own style, you're now resigned to doing a Terrence Malick impression, because what has worked for Scorsese and Wes Anderson will work for you. You forget for the moment that "work" is the operative word because -- jesus -- living is expensive these days and ya gots to strike while the iron is hot, ya just gots ta. So you trick some investors, hire some famous people and a great DP, lock in some locations, look for beauty in the large and the small. If a story puts itself together in the hurricane, so be it. Bonus.

To the Wonder has things you may recall movies having: themes, a story, a plot... A film should have a plot, right? I mean, probably. The supporting argument is, what, Malick made this for himself? To digest some painful memories and explore the limitations of the medium? That is his right and any filmmaker's right, from the top studio director to the film school student to the kid in Kansas playing with a webcam. They just don't have a pedigree to waste. Remember that the end result of this is that the film also has to be released eventually. To, y'know, an audience. Eh, screw it, this is about Terrence. He needs to work some stuff out the only way he knows how. Who cares if that makes him a con-artist.

Watch it or, y'know, don't. The film takes way too many liberties with your time, your grace, your willingness to trust someone who hasn't hurt you before, not that much. Make no mistake, it does not mind wasting your time. It thinks nothing of you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

Feelings require some distance in order to ignore them. I can have clearer thoughts about The Dark Knight now that I have given it the proper pause, especially now that the world has remembered that anybody can play The Joker. Anyhow, in some ways a color negative to Batman Begins, some mischievous scamp took Nolan's usual stylistic clarity and sliced them to ribbons, scattering them in a high wind caused by a hospital explosion. The film is a fucking mess. There are some incomprehensible action scenes and the usual Three Things Going On at Once shit, and now there are baffling non-conclusions to major set pieces (What happened after Joker pushed Rachel out the penthouse window and Batman jumped out after her? Did he... slaughter everyone up there? I guess he just left...). The Dark Knight undeniably aims very high and every once in awhile, it hits the bulls-eye. Unfortunately, it is so reliant on the momentum it creates that when it is gone, during the dreaded re-watch, the strings are visible and a great many of them aren't attached to anything. A whole sequence where Bruce gives up being Batman lasts minutes but seems much longer, is quickly discarded, could ultimately be cut from the film with no impact. Rachel Dawes is still here and that's a bummer given that she has no function other than to show up in dangerous situations.  A courtship of Gotham between three characters is muddled by a literal romance and eventually, a plot for revenge. Harvey Dent doesn't need justification to lose his mind if Gotham won't let him be sane. Nolan might think we're smart enough to handle all the simultaneous Stuff but too stupid to take two steps into the unraveling of a character's mind. We need a sexual crutch, do we? Harvey is fucking her -- he clearly loves her. Bruce is no longer fucking her -- he's clearly jealous. Listen: I don't think I should be rooting for the villain here... perhaps tells these other guys to fucking cool it a little. The Joker may kill people but at least he doesn't WHINE.
[This review is a rewrite.]

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: Following (1998)

Micro-noir. Three characters interact, each are lying to the other two. One lie ends up being really important, hidden behind the others. By the end, the characters suffer three fates: hell, limbo, and the one who got away with it. It's a tasty enough story but served with the bonus narrative structure cocktail, nonlinear puzzle pieces which seem impossibly complex at first but fall into place easily, as though Nolan knew how our minds with put it all together from the beginning. It's the work of a craftsman. It's so SIMPLE. A twisty, intense story can be told with small tools and very little money. Whenever this happens, the feeling of delight is its own reward, outside of the film itself. Maybe this means that the stunt outshines the material. A re-watch is a cold experience, one where you could have sworn you remembered the room being a little bigger. It's okay. This room is fine. After all, look at what this guy is doing now... making smaller rooms with bigger tools.

Review: Batman Begins (2005)

It turned out that Christopher Nolan could exist in the mainstream quite comfortably and we could all breathe a sigh of relief. He sure wasn't afraid to sink further into it. In what seems like a huge risk in hindsight, he approaches the story of Bruce Wayne in a novel fashion, using a lot of the same narrative trickery from Memento and some pretty heavy themes given that this is about a man in a costume who punches bad guys (Like Leonard Shelby, Bruce IS the plague on Thebes). The efficiency of the first half is Nolan operating at full capacity, or at least very near it, so I'm not quite sure what happened to the second half. It's possible that killing off the Rachel Dawes character in the second act could have cleared up the action (it certainly would have helped The Dark Knight immensely). And yeah, sure, the suit looks a little dumb and the Tumbler is never cool, but they have little to do with how suddenly preachy and overbearing the film's characters get. Was there no better way to dispatch the villain than via one-liner that sounds like it belongs to a different superhero? Whew, good thing that news report says no cops died in that stupid, reckless chase through the city or I might have to question how good I am at doing my job. "Is this a time to joke, Alfred, when there's a flaming log on my chest?" Should we really let Gordon drive the Tumbler? Ehhhh. Of the three Nolan Batmans, this is the strongest stylistically, the weakest in content, a film I want to like more until I remember what happens in it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Interstellar (2014)

As with Inception, it is with the same sort of excitement you feel sitting down with an original science-fiction film, experiencing it for the first time, immersing yourself in a strange world, uncovering its mysteries, walking through someone else's imagination. If Inception is a ray of light, Interstellar is the dark shadow it casts, when that journey is not nearly as rewarding, where the visceral excitement is replaced with a brief grace period, followed by bitter curiosity. An objective autopsy. What went wrong here? Why don't I care enough about the characters or the mission? Why these narrative decisions: a watch, a bookcase, a crowbar, narration? Turns out love is the answer? PFFFFFFFFT. Nolan's weaknesses, the blunt statements of subtext vs. the barrage of dual narratives perform here at their worst. A shame, because the film is beautiful, the robots are cool, and Hans Zimmer is in top-form and injects actual excitement into an otherwise baffling sequence involving space madness and a sped-up docking sequence (the film's good scene). This and Inside Llewyn Davis made me think that the secret geniuses of all these movies are actually the cinematographers. I hope it's a coincidence because otherwise, this whole Following Directors thing is a total crapshoot. Yeah, c'mon, Soderbergh is his own cinematographer and that doesn't keep the quality of his films consistent. People are allowed to have bad days, bad years, and bad really expensive productions dedicated to an incredibly flawed script.