21 November 2009

Reviews: 2012 and Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

With two of the currently most hyped films in theaters having been viewed by me in a short timeframe, I thought it best, due to their natures, for me to link them in one post on this blog: as a single review of popular filmmaking now.

Genre: Action/Adventure (Apocalyptic)

Roland Emmerich, man behind the failed ambitions that were films like 10,000 B. C. (2008) and The Patriot (2000) as well as behind the box-office smash that was the film Independence Day (1996), takes a stride in his familiar shoes down his familiar path of visual-effects driven, global struggle with his latest film 2012. Captured in its first instances for all that it means to be and all that it ever could be by the leading words of its protagonist (played by the always adequate John Cusack), "I'm a dead man. I'm a dead man," the film makes it obvious that the entire pivot of the film will be in making the fixed content of that hyperbolic line as ironic and thus non-depressing for the audience as possible. Several times narrowly escaping death by means all (including lava, drowning, and flying debris), the protagonist skips his way through the film's all-too-manicured screenplay as though through a stream: stone by stone, over-dramatizing each tiny hop as though a giant leap for man and - not unironically - mankind itself as he goes. The plot casts aside obstacles for him as flippantly as it casts faux obstacles at him, and in the end he was never supposed to really have struggled at all, for being the eager-eyed optimist that he quite cognizantly albeit slightly misanthropically is. He is of course, as any reasonably observant spectator could tell you, the audience's filmic dopplegänger, never seriously in peril but dangled excitedly enough over the edge that the heart beats a bit faster and the lungs breath a bit deeper whenever he finds himself in flagrante apocalypto (if you will). This entire is both the film's strength and its weakness; though Mr. Emmerich rashly yet competently carves his way (with humor and aplomb, to boot) through a plot that on paper was no doubt the most banal of recreations, he still only carves himself a way through a plot that on paper is no doubt the most banal of recreations. As he urges Mr. Cusack to trip and slide and bring the audience to the edge (often literally) where it by buying its ticket implicitly avows it wants to (safely) go, he subsumes as most such "disaster films" do the meager kernel of true urgency in impact that the film as a work may have underneath the dramatic rise-and-fall (albeit well orchestrated) of flaccid-to-full-tilt audience-stimulation; instead of more fully exploring the interesting argument within the film (that identifies the present as the turning point of the Zeitgeist from that of a majorly faith-based society to that of a majorly humanistic society), he relegates that argument to the necessary interstices between the panderingly catastrophic and maudlin "main events" that want for no depths beyond the superficial. So, while as a filmmaker he may be in his element displaying his mastery of the fickle operations that supply popular titillation, unless he allows for the growth of more than the less-than-substantive quick thrill he (Mr. Emmerich) will never allow his films to find a safe ledge upon which to stand than the mere visually-effectually smashing consommé that they, 2012 well included, continue to be.

Grade: B-/C+

Genre: Drama

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire suffers from a complementary problem, though more grievously if possible. A film that I was sure from its previews could have been this year's Rachel Getting Married (2008; if such an expression in fact mean anything), it instead has turned out to be just a similarly popular titillation to Mr. Emmerich's 2012, though sappy where 2012 was snappy. Instead of tracking the world through the fate of one life, Precious (heretofore abbreviated as such) tracks a life through the fate of the world: the grimy effected dregs of urban life, where the bereavements of education, financing, and nutrition have left people to allay their fears and hungers by the most facile and available means possible: cruel perseverations of affected dominance, physical, mental, and sexual, and raw and gritty ethoi to match. And, though it is clear in abundance to anyone who may see the film that such a lifestyle upon any soul is perhaps the weightiest of burdens to bear, supersizing such a burden as director Lee Daniels and writers Geoffrey Fletcher and Sapphire do, to wring every last morbidly excitable drop from every member of their viewing public, does not a fair film suffice to make. Manipulative as, though in a far less skillful way than, 2012 or the ideologically comparable Crash (2006) and conditioned as any wannabe-indie-success (e. g., Where the Wild Things Are [2009]) may be nowadays, Precious is the stuttery trailing gasp of overly ambitious "message cinema." Given its subject matter, its tone too often jerked inappropriately toward cheap humor; its acting too often played ingratiatingly toward the awards; its editing too often left ends unacknowledged, unresolved, and untied; and its art direction too often stole into the sexy rather than keeping to the accurate. It wobbled when confronted with the extreme episodes of aggression, tension, and oppression that it was designed to convey, and it favored stinty cinematography for the "beautiful" rather than the coherent. It just rolled on, perpetually making the protagonist's situation worse and worse with sparse instances of respite, until at last end, when it seemed undeniable to anyone that the protagonist had made her major self-actualization and major turn toward the forever better in her life, Precious in her reality only bore so much cumulative hardship and burden both physically and psychically, that it would have been impossible for any rational viewer to think that she still had any real chance at manifesting anything close to her sparest dreams in her actual projected lifetime. So, instead, we as the rational audience were left to only anticipate her demise and/or the sorrowful reinduction of her children into the foul world and its corrosive habits under which she herself had somehow "grown." In short, the film at its end undid itself entirely; it brought itself so low that, like a particularly dangerous limbo-dancer, it had no choice but to fall to the ground after so barely making it underneath the bar and to the other side, to the completion of the game. It became a travesty double-over: a sour fairy-tale made sourer tragedy by sheer bleak-proclivity - a harsh description which I feel confident calling not the filmmaker's ultimate goal. The film's few redeeming qualities (i. e., a solid supporting performance by Mariah Carey[?!], a finally moving though somewhat unsurprising performance by Mo'Nique, and a potentially not terrible source-material) could scarcely redeem anything. As a result, calling Precious the film McDonald's made is for me hardly an equivocal statement: Sallow, ostensibly nutritious, cheap, and hyperstylized, the grubby product may titillate the masses upon initial consumption but will sit low and fatty in their guts upon inevitable future retrospection.

Grade: D+ - do yourself a favor and spend your time consuming the much more organic An Education instead.

Official Site: A Single Man

Though not yet officially linked by The Weinstein Company's official site, Tom Ford's upcoming film's (A Single Man's) own official site is apparently up and running, featuring not only a beautiful sample of the film's official score (composed by Abel Korzeniowksi) but also a link by which one, if interested, may read an excerpt from the book from which the film's official screenplay was adapted: Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964).

The film is set to be limitedly released on 11 December.

Exhibition: Tim Burton at MOMA

The Times has recently reviewed a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA): a retrospective of Tim Burton's work encompassing drawings, short films, and other creative product that the filmmaker/artist has composed during his adolescence, collegiate experience, employ at Disney, and ever after. While the reviewer Ken Johnson seems to believe that the show as a whole borders on the plane of boring redundancy for the unrelenting consistency of Mr. Burton's signature style, Mr. Johnson is also not hesitant to admit that the show is at the same time a must-see exhibition for any seriously adherent to the self-proclaimed misfit artist's work.

The exhibition opens officially tomorrow (22 November 2009) at the Museum and will close in the Spring, on 26 April 2010, after a five-month run.

13 November 2009

Announcement: The February Criterion Releases!

Criterion has always sought to bring you the best in classic and contemporary films, and there couldn’t be a better example of that than this February, when two long-requested masterpieces—Ophuls’sLola Montès and McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow—join the collection, along with two of the greatest films of recent years: Götz Spielmann’s Oscar-nominated Revanche and Steve McQueen’s Cannes-award-winning Hunger. All this, plus a George Bernard Shaw Eclipse set and Howards End on Criterion DVD!

07 November 2009

Trailer: A Single Man

O, my Film: According to Awards Daily, the official trailer for Tom Ford's upcoming filmic début A Single Man, adapted from the novel of the same title by Christopher Isherwood, has just been released via YouTube and it (embedded above), though not a significant departure from the earlier teaser version, is just spellbinding. I hope(!), my awe may not expire with the release of the full feature (scheduled for 11 December 2009).

02 November 2009

Preview: Life of Pi

Reports the Criterion Current from the Guardian, "Ang Lee has confirmed that his next film will be an adaptation of Yann Martel's [Booker-Prize--winning] mammoth best-seller Life of Pi" (2002)! "[T]he fanciful tale of a young boy from Pondicherry, India, who survives shipwreck only to be stranded in a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger as his companion; the novel has its exciting adaptation due in the next few years. Here's to anticipation!

Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Genre: Fairy Tale / Action-Adventure

I was one of the few, lucky enough to have seen this new film by rollicking director Spike Jonze in context with a former professor's subsequent panel on its inauguration into the canon of children's media. Though said panel itself did not provide too special or inspiring an interpretation of the film for me to use as a starting point, the audience of the panel did however have some interesting points that may find their way (in my modified versions of them) into this discussion.

Now, Where the Wild Things Are, as I'm sure we are all aware, is a new adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic - albeit controversial - children's book of the same title. The book and the film both concentrate around their shared protagonist, the boy Max, who in his quest to express himself most ardently finds that such self-expression affects not only himself but also the others in the world around him. He learns this lesson - and, one could argue, several others - in the course of his metaphorical - or, at least, illusory - journey to a land where comparatively large and menacing creatures, known collectively as the Wild Things, reside in both peace and unrest. Purely hedonistic, id-driven beings, they match Max in their more specialized personalities exactly, and Max as their elected sovereign initially takes pleasure in finally being a member of a community that upholds the same degree of insouciant expressiveness that he himself daily espouses (much to the chagrin of his largely off-screen, off-stage mother). However, as he himself witnesses with a more clarified and less biased viewpoint the ramifications of such no-holds-barred behavior on both himself and his compatriots at arms, he comes to recognize - if not cogently and explicitly - the valor of emotional responsibility, intelligence, and understanding. Having learned such non-trivial matters, Max then departs the journey, he no longer having a need of it, and returns to his home life, where having learned such lessons he, we are to expect, will lead a more compassionately relative, emotionally mature life. Such, in a metaphorical nut-shell, is the plot.

However, in the case of the film, such fails to be the whole story. Though Mr. Jonze and his co-screen-writer David Eggers flesh out the didactic tribulations of Max's journey with the Wild Things to touch on a more expansive view of social interactions and personal expression, the ending result feels didactic in its presentation whereas its source material does not; and, while didacticism in and of itself is not necessarily negative, in this particular instance and this particular adaptation, where natural developments and an organic sense of streaming consciousness must flow and supersede imposed structure and lineaments, such moralizing is a weighty problem. In spite of its positive intentions and Mr. Jonze's directorial history as that of a man capable of producing work of the highest orderless order, Where the Wild Things Are ultimately unfortunately fails to be such an organic tale as it would want to, need to, and have to be in order to be reach its own best expression.

Perhaps this failure is a result of Mr. Jonze's rigid stricture to the elements and the concise nature of Mr. Sendak's plot, since the film shines best in its addended extended prologue and epilogue, in which Mr. Jonze introduces his audience to Max, Max's mother, and the rest of Max's emotional world in a way that is as concise, rigorous, and ready as it is organic, moving, and beautiful. Festooned by Mr. Jonze's signature phrases of unstilted realism and succinct emotional truth, this introduction and its parallel conclusion ring truer to the intangible values of their source material than the plodding, probing, and stilted body of the film ever does.

That body, in trying not to fall short of the high bar set by its bookending logs, ends up reading more like an effectively sold, intellectual's perspective on the memories of "childhood" (the theoretical concept) than like the naturally grown and harvested prints of childhood now (lived as itself). For never in the body of the film does the camera-work ever really seem sure of itself, as it does in the introductory and conclusory bookends of the film; unsure, it only vacillates nervously between an objective, structured eye (that exists in this film only because otherwise the eye doesn't quite know how best to grasp what it's actually seeing) and the subjective, unformalized window that the film really needs. Likewise, never in the body does the screenplay ever really unburden itself of the task of "trying to accomplish something," as it does in the bookends; burdened, it only stumbles where it shouldn't and fails to find the footing and the freedom necessary to foment the entropic revelry that its self-professed endgame needs its action to be. And ultimately, while the art direction on the island of the Wild Things does consistently look tasteful and appealing, those body-based sets' spare minimalism speaks more to the contemporary propensities of art today than the timeless realities of a child immemorial.

Yet, somehow I do not blame Mr. Jonze much at all for these missteps, even though he was technically at the film's helm. Though perhaps I may be excusing him nepotistically, I find his mark on the material in the film that did work and not on the material that did not - primarily because of the fact that those parts that he himself added to the story (i. e., the prologue and the epilogue) did still register so meritoriously in their qualities. His choices there and even beyond there inarguably become the glue that keeps his ship afloat. That the young Max Records gave what I think to be a tremendous leading performance, fully carrying the weight of the film, was with no doubt with thanks to Mr. Jonze's dedication to his craft; that Karen O. & the Kids' and Carter Burwell's scores integrated so well amidst the action of the film - supplementing and accentuating but never replacing that action - was with no doubt with thanks to Mr. Jonze's eye for the music in his imagery and not for the use of the music as a magnifier alone; and even that the costumes, which as large, rough, hairy, and decidedly awkward pieces of the actors' equipments one could expect might well weigh down on the necessary buoyancy of the film, instead appear utterly natural and naturally mobile in their filmic surroundings is with no doubt with as many thanks to Mr. Jonze's hand as to the costume-designer's.

Yet, beyond these redeeming features - pleasant though they may be - Mr. Jonze's film still suffers and shows signs of its suffering. It grows weary, wears on, and then eliminates itself with maudlin charm and affection that, though maybe touching, earn little reward for integrity, quality, and appropriateness to this dramatic material. Though I am sorry to have to say it, Where the Wild Things Are deserves no more from me here than a

Grade: B-: in majority a trendy dilettante's retelling of an enduring neoclassical fairy tale, a retelling that in minority nevertheless preserves important qualities of the original.

Review: Antichrist

I've taken some time, since I've seen the film, to fully digest Antichrist - or, if not fully, then at least better than may have some other reviewers who were quick with the instinctual exclamations but lacking of the intellectual fervor that this film, as all others, deserves. Mr. von Trier has clearly tried to take his film-making to a very personal place with this obviously purgative venture into ethereal imagery and caustic relationships. The protagonistic couple, played admirably for their endurance by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, rub up against one another and also against their inhabited world with increasing friction that eventually surpasses the stimulating and transgresses into the chagrinning, irritating, and ultimately burning acts of animate bodies in conflict. Against one another they rub and fight and contrive scenarios that, to the non-endemic eye, read like hallucinated vorteces of sadomasochistic indulgence and occultural pain but, to the endemic, feel like natural off-shoots of deep emotional seeds, as if thick and woody flowers were grown out, from within, and shaped in so doing by the pressurized nature of their containers. While such story-telling and investigation are of course powerful and indeed shocking at times, the ending effect is one that does include beauty before it leaps into arcane over-indulgence and morbid inevitabilities. Mr. Anthony Dod Mantle's refulgent cinematography, albeit hyper-stylized, rescues itself from the edge many times and in the end constructs a visual field that, though rapt and sometimes wreckless, finds sense in the hectic screenplay. By frequently literally slowing the action down to near clinical observations of scenes in progress - especially the film's prologue and epilogue - he trains his camera to slice and cleave an inlet for its viewers through which they may see, feel, and access the tightly wound, balled, and precarious knots of fervor and intimacy upon which the entirety of the action rests; and, though meagre, such an inlet is just enough for me to commend him for the achievement by listing him at right with those Under Consideration for the best of the year in their respective film-making categories. I include there also Ms. Gainsbourg and Mr. Dafoe, who though not especially strong nevertheless admirably somehow resist complete over-indulgence and wrecklessness in their performances as well, firming up the heart of the piece that, though anomalously conformed, beats still. However, I do not include any other creator of the film, including Mr. von Trier himself, whose work though intriguing here I think leaves too much heart - and not quite enough head - on the table.

Grade: B: Saved by its tempering hands, this film risks tipping itself out of its whirl with too daring a proclivity to do so for me to call it any more or any less.