Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: "Drag Me To Hell"

Drag Me To Hell

* * * * / * * * *

When Sam Raimi made "The Evil Dead" in 1981, he was fresh out of film school.  He brought to the zombie sub-genre a manic, frenetic, and over-the-top style that blended terrifying gore with ridiculous camp.  With an effervescent camera that spiraled, charged, and infiltrated the action from unpleasant tilts and feverish proximity, his was a bold and original style.

Now, in 2009, Raimi is nearly 30 years divorced from that work, having made two increasingly campy sequels and helmed another blockbuster trilogy (Spider-man).  His return to his roots, "Drag Me To Hell," is a fresh, original, and madly entertaining film that breathes phantasmic life into an ailing American horror genre, veritably resurrecting demon-possession/paranoia films from their ashes.

In Raimi's latest, Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a loans officer willing to do anything to get an open assistant manager position - including turning down a mortgage extension to a creepy gypsy woman.  Shamed, the gypsy attacks Christine, placing a curse on her soul that will torment her for three days before dragging her, as you can probably guess, to Hell.  In the "Evil Dead" films, Bruce Campbell was a puppet for torture, subjected to physical woes and bloody lamentations.  As she becomes mentally unhinged, Christine is thrown about by shadows and gets covered in bugs, mud, and other assorted slime - but before the eyes roll with the disgust of "typical female torture," Raimi lets Christine become ferociously alive in the final act, fighting back against her curse with collective restrain mixed with a dash of spunk and badass-ery.  Raimi's direction of Lohman is surprisingly low-key; her reactions and movements are rarely over-the-top - when they are, it feels appropriate, lending itself to the camp and the horror.  When she pulls back, she lets her character become part of the tapestry of whirlwind effects.

Raimi's technical prowess is on full display, and he returns to the horror genre a seasoned professional, fully capable of knowing how to ratchet his suspense and mess with his visuals.  "Drag Me To Hell" is a loud, chaotic picture.  The camera does drastic tilts, shadows descend, bumps turn into booms, and right when you're terrified of what's about to happen, Raimi goes past of the point of plausibility - his tension becomes hysterical gross-out, the effects get extreme, and it's hard not to laugh at the severity of Christine's situation.

The film refuses to take itself seriously, and the better for it.  As it gains headlong momentum into its final act, successively building on its scares and shocks until it breaches its own dam and the floodgates let all Hell - literally speaking - break loose, Raimi doesn't let his trickery get the best of him.  "Drag Me To Hell" is indeed a return of true horror, of films that fascinate, draw you in, suck you dry, and still brim with a thorough intensity through their final seconds.  Raimi reclaims his position as a visionary maestro, and horror is the better for it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Michael Haneke Wins Palme d'Or

The uber-prestigious Cannes Film Festival wraps up today, after parades of raves for Pixar's Up (shown out of competition) and tirades of outraged viewers after the screening of Lars von Trier's Antichrist.  Coming out on top is Michael Haneke for his film The White Ribbon.  This is the first Palme for Haneke, who has produced some of the most confounding and complicated films of the last decade or so, including 1997's Funny Games and 2004's Cache.  Though I've yet to see the film, I'm glad this intellectually stimulating filmmaker, whose films often begin with far more questions than answers, gets this kind of recognition.  Full winners below (courtesy AwardsDaily):

  • Palme d’Or: The White Ribbon directed by Michael Haneke
  • Grand Prix: A Prophet by Jacques Audiard
  • Special Jury Prize: Alan Resnais director of Wild Grass
  • Prix du Jury (Jury Prize): Fish Tank directed by Andrea Arnold & Thirst directed by Park Chan-Wook
  • Best Director: Kinatay by Brillante Mendoza
  • Best Screenplay: Spring Fever by Lou Ye
  • Best Actor: Christopher Waltz for Inglourious Basterds
  • Best Actress: Charlotte Gainsbourgh for Antichrist
  • Camera d’Or: Samson and Delilah directed by Warwick Thorton
  • Camera d’Or (Special Mention): Ajami
  • Short Film Palme d’Or: Arena directed by Joao Salaviza

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Salvation" is nowhere to be found

Terminator: Salvation


* ½ / * * * *


What does it mean to put the name “Terminator” in front of your film?  For director McG and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, it seems to serve only as a convenient way to write a movie with no backstory, and to further lure franchise fans into the theatre.

            There’s nary a hint of James Cameron’s original conceits in this post-apocalyptic war film, and usually I’d say that’s a good thing – a new director should explore different territory (it’s the difference between Nolan’s Batman and Ratner’s X-Men 3), especially when shouldering a franchise many declared dead years earlier.

            McG realizes a fundamental truth of science fiction – it has historically been used to create social, political, and psychological allegories, and exploits that fact to mind-crunching tedium while veiling his film in an unending ricochet of explosions.

            For it seems McG never really realized the pleasure of Cameron’s original Terminator – the low-budget creativity.  Granted, I still feel T2 is a glorified inversion of the same formula with a higher budget, but the reverence of the original film breeds out of its ability to develop surprisingly deep ideas out of silly, if endearing and clever, film school tricks.

            To get back to the “Salvation” at hand, the war against the machines is in full swing, but what was only hinted at through dark flashbacks (or flashforwards, depending on how you think of chronology) in twisted and demolished cities, is now full of bright desert locales and desaturated colors that reduces the entire film to varying shades of greens and browns.

            And for its opening ten minutes, “Terminator Salvation” is surprisingly captivating, with McG using extended handheld tracking shots to capture a Resistance attack on a Skynet base, complete with dozens of explosions and a visceral one-take shot of a helicopter crash from inside the chopper.

            But then it starts to become clear – the year is 2018.  In “Terminator,” John Connor sent Kyle Reese back in 2029.  In effect, what could have been a singular bridge film detailing John Connor’s overthrow of the machines is instead a childish plea for another trilogy.

            Not even Christian Bale’s monotonous charisma, which shifts rather inexplicably from his raspy Batman voice to lots of screaming, can save a screenplay where nothing happens.  Even as the action entertains, Brancato and Ferris arrive at no larger point or any advancement of the story beyond what we already know from Kyle Reese’s flashbacks in “Terminator.”

            Which, of course, opens up another question – how do you create a captivating film out of a story that fans already largely know?  We know Kyle Reese’s fate, much as we know John Connor’s fate, which makes much of the perilous and increasingly preposterous action feel moot – fun to stare at, but impossible to become involved in.

            To try and negotiate a solution, the writers invent Marcus Wright – a death row convict who donates his body to Cyberdyne before Judgment Day, only to become the test subject for a Terminator model that mixes robotic chips and human organs.  Sam Worthington, who plays Marcus, seems to have been cast solely because of his modest physical resemblance to Bale, for the whole film pivots around a scene where Marcus and Connor stand face-to-face and the latter reveals to his captive that he is in fact a machine and not a human.

            The implications of this scene feel more like explications under the redundancy of the writing and the framing of the shots: McG has created a Lacanian mirror scene, where John Connor stares at the face of his own potential monster, while the monster stares wistfully back at the man he wishes he could be.  It should be a moment of stark recognition, where Connor could realize that his mechanical military operation endangers himself and those around him of becoming their enemy.

            Instead, the scene plays like something out of Frankenstein, with Marcus’s skin tattered, revealing mechanical gears underneath.  Exasperation sets in when Marcus confronts his “creator” at Skynet and decides to revolt against it, an act of human rebellion and spiritual redemption that, had “Terminator Salvation” been written with a hint of emotional honesty or narrative tension, could have been the lynchpin to the parallel action between John Connor and Marcus Wright.

            Even worse is the depiction of Skynet’s human internment camps, which feel modeled straight off of “Schindler’s List.”  Images of humans boxed into tiny transport vehicles and being shot down by guards come off as nothing more than cheap Holocaust allusions.

            It’s hard to figure out why so much time is spent away from John Connor, who by all rights should have been the film’s sole point of interest.  There’s only one real moment between him and his wife, Kate (played forgettably by Bryce Dallas Howard), and very little time is invested in showing his military prowess or potential leadership.

            Bale’s physical presence is used to tremendous effect throughout the action scenes, where his primal screams only add to the suffocating sound mix, but his performance is surprisingly generic, with writing that seems to care little about his plight as mankind’s prophesized savior – the internal conflict that binds the rest of the films.

            This is, of course, glossing over the fact that nearly half the film’s dialogue rather stupidly restates something we just watched happen (“Look, the signal is working!”), or goes through great pains to cram the original dialogue in somewhere (“I’ll be back” shows up for some reason, and provides a moment to remember that this is actually a Terminator film).

            To McG’s credit, there are some great images of wrecked landscapes, where the desert seems to stretch on forever and human figures feel dwarfed against a landscape that is alternately alienating through its bleakness and frightening in its cold plasticity.

            The tone is decidedly a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men,” where the desperation of life after Earth’s death is met with extended tracking shots of intense action.

            The more McG throws at the screen, the less it all seems.  As “Terminator Salvation” goes on, any hint of narrative strength is diminished against the weight of its cacophonous action, where fight scenes and escape scenes drag on and on.  What was even daring and appealing about its literally explosive elements end up feeling derivative by the time Connor and Marcus band together to fight one of Cyberdyne’s latest Terminators (take a guess as to who shows up via full CGI) – a moment that should have produced unbridled glee, but instead generates a collective sigh.

            If we are to believe that “Terminator Salvation” is about the success of humanity against the monstrosity of machinery, it would help to have made a film that doesn’t feel so cold and calculated in its movements, that lacks a single moment of organic emotion or surprising humanity. 

Perhaps the bluntness of its psychology has a deeper point – could McG have realized, when watching the moment that Connor stares at the machine he risks becoming, that he himself was something of John Connor, poised threateningly between humanity and his camera’s artificial machinery?  Too bad he unwittingly surrendered to the nuts and bolts, for unlike Marcus Wright, there isn’t even a human heart embalmed in this mess of technological vomit.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Currently Watching: Once Upon a Time in the West

If you never knew this, the title of my blog (Once Upon a Time in the Cinema) stems directly out of a pair of Sergio Leone's films, Once Upon a Time in the West (68) and Once Upon a Time in America (84).  They're not related at all.  But they are two of the best films I've ever seen - both grandiose and small, operatic and intimate, slow but ferocious.

I watched West again for the first time in many months (with a commentary track in tow), and was reminded again of its beautifully coordinated structure.  Firmly in the Italian school of filmmaking, Leone believed the world was the frame - the audience cannot see beyond it so its boundaries control the flow of information in a scene.  The cutting of related frames (much like in Eisenstein montage) creates a development of action that pivots around character looks, camera pans, and changes in focus.  Many critics have echoed that West is "an opera of gazes," and I agree - it's basically two hours and forty-five minutes of people looking at each other, but the whole damn thing is beyond mesmerizing.

As the historians note on the soundtrack, Leone is making a revisionist's post-modern Western.  It's a film crammed with allusions to Stevens, Ford, Zinnemann, et al, but Leone stylizes, subverts, and exaggerates the conventions and quotations to create his own notion of the West.  Even the use of Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jack Elam, and Woody Strode evokes reminders of their previous Western incarnations, and each piece of casting almost wickedly plays on the dynamics of the star system, going radically against type and expectation.  Why I love Leone's film, beyond its intense in-frame and between-editing contrasts that border on almost perverse stylization, and beyond its intricately constructed relations between aural and visual elements in each sequence, is that he lets the "spaghetti Western" mean something else.

Even in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone's filmmaking is a stylized response to Ford, even insomuch as its Spanish locales erode the red dust of Monument Valley.  The characters in that film all reach points of moral ambiguity, swept up in history and consumed by greed to form a menacing tri-character dissection of American ambition.  Using the train as a simple symbol for the simultaneous progression and corruption of the Western ideal, Leone again skewers cultural perceptions (from a mediated standpoint) while giving each character an archetype that merges with others while uprooting traditional genre roles.  Even Jill (Claudia Cardinale) emerges out of the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold syndrome to become a full-bodied worker, embodying the kind of rugged idealism her late husband tried to possess and carrying the hope and progress of the West through the symbol of water, even as Bronson's Man With No Name rides into a faux sunset fulfilled but aimless.

Also, I just have to note, we kind of take Cinemascope for granted now.  Big productions come in big widescreen, and big vistas demand to be captured in the widest possible lens.  While yes, it had been around for decades and yes, other filmmakers had used it remarkably (Wyler comes instantly to mind...), Leone gives us provocative new ways to think about the intermingling of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, how the landscape evokes humanity and how human characters evoke traits of their dusty surroundings.

I'm cutting myself off now -- this is just a scant overview of why this film will always be somewhere in my Top 50 films

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Nine" Trailer

On my Top 10 Fall Movies and Oscar hopefuls is "Nine," director Rob Marshall's musical adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name, itself a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's "8 1/2".  If you know me at all, you know I think 8 1/2 is one of the five best films ever made.  Instead of running scared from this film though, I'm embracing it for a possible merger of Fellini and another stage artist famous for incorporating his personality - Bob Fosse (see All That Jazz).  The trailer sizzles with colors and impeccably framed shots - the same kind of dynamic visuals that make me still defend Chicago as an important musical (why people are so quick to dismiss that movie when it clearly signaled such a big shift in how we think about musicals is beyond me - even if Moulin Rouge was better and came a year before...I digress).  Couple that with Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, and Marion Cotillard and, to quote Carl Weathers, baby, you've got yourself a stew going.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Star Trek" and the Re-birthing of a Franchise

Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

I'll get my own elephant-in-the-room out of the way: I am not, nor have I ever been, a Star Trek fan.  I've watched multiple episodes from every incarnation and have failed to be compelled.  At the same time, I also acknowledge its influence and mythical stature in 20th century television and popular culture as a whole.  Part of that understanding comes from me being taught by Ina Rae Hark, a frequent and respected sci-fi publisher who recently penned the BFI book on Star Trek.  So while "I took a course on it in college" may not always be the best defense, it will have to work here.

From this new re-boot's opening moments, director J.J. Abrams asserts his stance - intensified continuity editing, balanced and surprisingly graceful visual effects, bombastic music, surprisingly effective sound edits, and a pace that jettisons his plot at warp speed while never sacrificing character conflict and melodrama.  Yes, this is an "origins" story, an idea that's become so pervasive in all franchises it's even in their titles (witness "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann simultaneously acknowledge the debt they owe to Rodenberry's original while freely striking their own path.

In their hands, Kirk (Chris Pine) is an aggressive youth lacking direction while lacking a father.  Spock (Zachary Quinto) constantly negotiates his Vulcan and human identities, struggling to bridge the cultural gap between the two and understand his own emotions, while the rest of the crew gently falls into place with subtle jabs at their original counterparts.  Sci-Fi's two favorite men of fan fiction do not necessarily strike a gay subtext here; their story is one of self-discovery.  The whole film is composed of a search for identity, one that extends into its villain (Eric Bana, deliciously one-note), and by turn the film itself.  The lack of identity becomes a flaw for each character, and the flaws this lack breeds become exacerbated over the course of the film, so that only by recognizing them are characters allowed to gain strength and success.

Abrams' production is undeniably gorgeous.  Beyond the uniformly spectacular visual effects, nearly flawless sound mixing, and handsome set design, the film boasts surprising moments of technical prowess with complex tracking shots through the corridors of the Enterprise, sharp pans across the control deck, and editing that alternately emphasizes unity and disparity among the crew.  These relationships are enhanced through blocking, rack focusing, and Dutch tilts that change the geometry of character position to reflect emotional reversals.

It's been suggested that part of Star Trek's appeal is its ability to imagine a future largely devoid of wide-spread conflict, where different races and species exist in harmony on a ship whose mission is to give humanitarian aid throughout multiple planets and societies.  While this utopian ideal seemed ripe for the 60s, firmly positioning the US (or at least, a sci-fi alternative to our brand of "humanitarian democracy") as harbingers of peace and salvation - while still kicking butt and taking our shirts off.  In 2009, the film revels in contradictions and hypocrisies, exposing melodramatic emotions and psychological conflict, ultimately restoring hope while questioning its longevity.

We again see in Star Trek the unification of all we hope for, but we come to understand its fragility.  The deep companionship, the against-all-odds attitude is retained, but somehow enhanced through the fleeting explorations of its discharges.  What helps significantly is Abrams' uniform sense of exhilarating exploration.  He feels like a frequent navigator to this world, while reveling in the chance to be a part of it.  His wide-eyed amazement at the ship and its crew boosts his film.

As a blockbuster, which is how Trek will ultimately be judged by executives and most audiences (as it does seem to herald the "real" start of summer after Wolverine's high-money-low-interest reception), the film incites a myriad of blurbs: action-packed, fun, high-octane, thrilling, majestic, a sensual overload, fantastic ... all interchangeable, take your pick.  While the film's tagline foolishly suggests "this ain't your daddy's Star Trek," it actually holds true.  What was once viewed as alienating and "geeky" now seems hip and flashy, able to breach demographics and use the popular common lore of Star Trek as a building block for its own dynasty.

Any faults aimed at the film come only at its own occasionally over-zealous enthusiasm - it has a tendency to sometimes feel routine and over-cooked, and some scenes in the first act feel too explicitly geared at expressing an origins story and laying unnecessary psychological groundwork.  And while I may personally have minor qualms with the editing (a few too many close-ups for my taste during the action), I have nothing but admiration with the sincere solidity this film has been crafted with.

For fans, of which I must again stress I am traditionally not, the question that will surely be raised is, does this do Rodenberry's vision justice?  It's a question I'm unfit to answer, but I will anyway.  Yes.  It does.  It's respectful and sincere while purposeful and entertaining.  It does, however, largely forego philosophical exploration for grandiose space opera.  The intersection of these two thematic ideas is not wholly embedded within the film.  While perhaps an intellectual detriment that only increases the film's position as blockbuster entertainment instead of broad cultural commentary, this again furthers an argument for Star Trek as a vessel to explore other dimensions of its reality.

There's no sense comparing this film to anything else in Star Trek lore.  Any way you slice it, this is solid filmmaking, brought to life with surprising passion, larger-than-life action, and rounded by surprisingly sturdy tangents into melodrama that stimulates without feeling overbearing.  Were I to bring up my real sci-fi devotion (and I might as well), Star Wars, I would have to freely acknowledge George Lucas's inability to reconcile his desire to utilize 21st century special effects with his sappy, wooden dialogue and false environments.  In those films, he merely filled in holes to surprisingly drab effect.  In Abrams' fantasies of the Enterprise, holes are only magnified and logic becomes something to fear.  The effects (as they should) support the story line, which never gets bogged down in repetition or stalled in weepy emotions.

Science fiction fans have nothing to fear.  Maybe for the first time in...ever, admitting to being a Star Trek fan will be a "cool" thing (all the kids are doing it!).  It's rare to find a film so cognizant of the debt it owes to its predecessors while gradually becoming its own piece.  By the time the Enterprise gets its weapons blasting at full force, it's genre nirvana.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New "Sherlock Holmes" Photo

Courtesy of AwardsDaily by way of USA Today:

(Blogger sucks at letting me resize pictures for some reason, so click the pic to see the full size with Jude Law)

I'm usually not one to just post new pictures, but I'm trying to add more stuff to this blog.  That, and this new still of the Guy Ritchie-directed Holmes movie, with Robert Downey Jr. as the detective and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson, has my interest highly piqued.  A new look for Holmes or a dire retread?  Methinks the former (also asks the question, will Ritchie evolve from his manic ensemble films into a pulpy literary adaptation dripping with style? Or, can he make this look good? would be a better question)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Internet piracy: continues to be a victimless crime

Fox may have lit a fire through some of their corridors last month when the Wolverine workprint leaked, but it still finished number one with an impressive 87 million dollars despite less than stellar reviews.  Further proof that even though the industry is desperately trying to combat internet piracy, the dents it may or may not be making are barely visible and leads me to question whether the unfinished print actually encouraged people to go see Wolverine?  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Coppola's "Tetro" Trailer

As one of the only people in the world who thought "Youth Without Youth" was a fabulous film, I'm very excited for Francis Coppola's latest (premiering at Cannes later this month). Here's the HD trailer

Friday, May 1, 2009

Summer arrives....awesome?

Yes, today is the start of the proverbial "summer movie season," the yearly cash cow for the studios, the 3-4 month extravaganza for them to unload their multi-million dollar products and pray for returns somewhere near 500 million (oh Batman and your money-making prowess).

Last year, the season kicked off with IRON MAN - a movie that critics and audiences alike loved, like, really loved, for Robert Downey Jr's endlessly entertaining jettison into A-list stardom.  And it made buckets of money.

This week?  Well, we have "Wolverine" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

Wolverine currently sits at a tepid, dismissive 42% on Metacritic.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is enjoying a nice, warm 38%.

Granted, no one expected the critics to go ga-ga over Wolverine (just watch the trailer, it's utterly ridiculous), but after the leaked workprint version last month, will these reviews render the movie void?  Or a better question may be, will action fans skip out in favor of waiting for Star Trek next week?

Awesome way to start the summer, guys!